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Face-Timing With Dashboard Confessional To Reflect On 20 Years Of Emo

Music
Photo courtesy of Mike Dunn

Chris Carrabba looks back on his two-decade-long career

It's been 16 years since hope dangled on a string. 17 years since hearts were there to break or burst, or wear as jewelry. 18 years since hair was... everywhere. It's been 20 years since Chris Carrabba founded Dashboard Confessional — and that is reason to celebrate.

"If you were to ask me, 'What's the most surprising thing?' Number one would be the fact that this thing is successful," Carrabba, now 44, says on a recent January afternoon. "Number two would be that the emotional resonance I feel is just as powerful." Of course, anyone who was once a teenager and has heard "Hands Down" or "Screaming Infidelities" or "The Best Deceptions," or any other of the number of emotionally charged songs released by the band over the past two decades would agree. With lyrics like "As for now I'm gonna hear the saddest songs/And sit alone and wonder, how you're making out/ And as for me, I wish that I was anywhere with anyone, making out", they still hit as hard as they did when you first heard them. So, Carrabba is taking them on the road, once again.


Next week, Dashboard Confessional will kick off The #DC20 Tour, playing 2001's The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most and 2003's A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar in their entirety in select cities through June, as well as a mix of songs from both on all other dates at intimate venues across the country. (Most shows are already sold out, and have been for several weeks, if there was any doubt just how much the original material still resonates.) On Friday, the band will also release The Best Ones Of The Best Ones, a new compilation of its biggest hits over the past years.

The cover of the album sees Carrabba no longer sporting the pompadour of the early aughts, but rather a swoop of jet-black hair and a full, trimmed beard. The face that appears via FaceTime is just the same, albeit with a slightly more unruly beard — a perk of pre-tour life. "Chris, nice to meet you," he says by way of introduction from his Nashville home, a cup of coffee by his side. Over the next half hour, he'll talk thoughtfully about the legacy of what originally started as just a side project for his main band, Further Seems Forever, seriously contemplating the answers to each posed question, but not serious enough to not throw several self-deprecating jabs at himself. In fact, over the course of just thirty minutes and a mildly grainy phone connection, you get the sense that Carabba may very well be the least jaded rockstar known to man.

Here, the singer talks about his biggest hits, deepest emotions, and twenty years of Dashboard Confessional.

What does tour prep look for you at this point?

There are a lot of songs that we're going to play on this tour that we don't always play live. I want them to sound like we always play them live. So for the moment, it starts with me doing the most rehearsal I can do without the band, so I don't slow these ringers down, because they are incredible. I don't want to be the idiot asking questions about how my own songs go.

As for the rest of the prep, touring for me is such a constant that my bags don't get unpacked in the first place. So there's not much else to do. I got home right before Christmas [from the last tour]. I've had for me what is a lengthy break, but for what I guess other people would regard as not much time. But I love touring so much, that I don't want to say being home feels less natural…

But you probably spend more time on the road than at home at this point.

Yeah. So there is a bit of a centering thing that happens when I get out there on the road. And plus, I really love to play music, and when I do that at home, it's not as good.


Chris Carrabba at the 2019 Shaky Knees Music Festival Photo: Scott Legato/Getty Images


Are there any nuances of being on the road that you're over at this point, though?

No.

Really? Even the buses and everything? Nothing?

Nope.

Well, that's a good sign. It means you have another 20 years in you.

If I keep doing my pushups and jump rope. I think I could get another 20. I don't know that anybody will be there to watch the next 20 but I'll be there.

Did you always know you were going to do this 20 year tour if you made it here?

I don't know if it was a foregone conclusion. Maybe it was. I did a really short 10 year anniversary when I didn't think I was going to do one. I didn't consider it as, "Well, I better go out there and celebrate this with the audience," which was really shortsighted. When I was out on the tour before that 10 year anniversary tour, the people I would meet at the shows would say, "So what are you going to do for the 10 year anniversary?" And I was like, "Well, have a nice dinner? Nice bottle of wine or something?" But then I realized that for somebody that's made my whole intention with this band, was that [the anniversary] was not just mine.

I have a really unorthodox career path where I'm sure I had a little bit of a showing on radio and I had some watershed moments with pieces that helped the puzzle like the MTV Unplugged, of course, and having songs on soundtracks, and being part of a scene that was enormously cooperative. But the truth is that the rise of my band was based off of the unusual [happening of ] one person hearing it and saying to two friends, "You've got to hear this." And so on and so forth. And that really kind of went hand in hand with my original intention of, "Let's let's turn this rock star dynamic on its ear a little bit," and take the division away from band and audience and let it be — at risk of sounding like hippie-ish —a cooperative.

Now that you've been doing this for 20 years, is it still hard to have that "what's mine is yours" mindset? Your lyrics are already so personal that I imagine there must be some kind of desire to keep some things private and just for yourself.

I do until I start writing. And then that kind of drifts away because I'm the only person in the room when I'm writing. Early on I realized that you don't stop yourself from writing the thing. [But] you can always choose to not put it out. Obviously I've chosen to not put songs out that suck — and sometimes I have put out songs that sucked, in all fairness.

But life is so much bigger than the songs, and you come to realize there's so much life experience at play all the time. It's simply impossible to put it all in a song. There's so much left that's mine. I've found myself on very rare occasions being like, "This is a topic or a corner that I'm not ready to share yet." And oftentimes those songs don't come out. But that subject matter does come out later in a different song, and then I'm ready for it for whatever reason, whatever it is that makes you ready for that thing. But I like being honest. Look, if I feel like it's just being safely honest, then I'm not sure I'm being totally honest.

If I feel like it's just being safely honest, then I'm not sure I'm being totally honest.

A lot of bands will retire certain songs over the years, and you haven't. When you're going on a tour like this playing albums front to back, are there any songs you could wish you could skip over?

It's not up to me, to be quite honest with you. This isn't the way it is always, but my favorite thing is when I do solo tours, just me and a guitar, and there's no set list. I know what song I'm going to play first, and everybody knows what song I'm going to play last. So we kind of leave it at that, and I just play whatever anybody calls it out. I have this sort of semi-rule that if I've played it once in the last year, it's got to be in [my brain] somewhere. If I start playing it, I just trust that it'll show up — and it doesn't always — but most of the time it shows up and I'll just play what they want. So the songs that get pushed off the off the set list seem to be by the directive of the audience.

Songs get cycled out in favor of new records sometimes — and you should play some of the new record because if you believe in it, go for it. If you've chosen to give it a place in your catalog, then it should bear relationship to the other songs. But I've never been one of those guys that's like, "So I'm going to take out ten songs from my set because I have ten new songs." That's no fun for me when I go see a band. But then, you asked about the songs that get cycled out. I don't think it means that people don't like them if they don't ask for them live. I just think that they're songs that are better suited for your private moment. Or maybe they're not as good. Or maybe it's both.

There are songs on A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar that I forgot had a certain power, because we hadn't been playing them in a long time. And now there's ones that have more power because I've had some distance from them. But I don't know until I get out there what is going to really resonate.

When you're crowdsourcing on those acoustic nights, are there any songs that you're surprised are still highly requested?

Well, all of them. [Laughs]. I had a conversation with my buddy ... and the way he phrased it was that, on a very basic level, the idea that anyone else at all knows them, likes them, loves them, wants to hear them, is still shocking. It doesn't matter how many years go on. It's still a surprise and shocking. And it's really rewarding that it's surprising.

I know there are bands that go out there and they just have a wall-to-wall catalog of hits. We don't really have hits. We have songs that connect with the listener for some reason that I couldn't describe. Going up there and hearing these songs get called out, there's the ones I kind of expect will be called out and get called out every night, and I try to still play those. But you know what I find interesting is that I'll go to regions of the world, and there are requests beyond those maybe four or five that everybody wants to hear all the time. For example, I just went to the UK and Germany and Europe, and they were asking to hear the pensive, slower songs. That was really rewarding for me to be able to step into a different place, performance-wise, that was not the tried and true. When I do the States, they want to hear — forgive the use of the word — the bangers.

When you're playing these songs so many years later, do you still feel that emotional attachment to them?

I don't lose it. If you were to ask me, "What's the most surprising thing?" Number one would be the fact that this thing is successful. But number two would be that the emotional resonance I feel is just as powerful.

Now the thing is it, it vacillates. It could be the same emotional response I got that led me to write the song in the first place, or it could be the thing where you as a human being, you're growing, you're changing all the time, your life experience is altering all the time, and it changes your point of view. And then these songs that have meant one thing for a long time can suddenly mean something that's really present in that moment of your life. It's hard for me to say if that's true for the listener on the other end. But that's my experience with it, and as a fan there are bands I've listened to that are heavily emotionally charged that I've just held on to so tightly as a fan, like The Cure and Built to Spill. And I first encountered them as a teen. I'm not a teen anymore.

But you still feel those same emotions as when you were a teen.

I feel those emotions. Sometimes they situationally apply differently to me now, and I think that's an incredible feat on their end, that these songs have such legs that they're malleable to your own personal experience. How could that writer have anticipated that? Impossible. So that's just the mark of being really honest in a song. It leaves it a lot of heart there to be found.

Do you still remember the specific people you wrote the songs about?

[Laughs] Of course, I remember.

You would think so, but maybe a song can be so cathartic that you completely lose sight of the pain that started it.

It's very interesting, you write a song about a situation that is so specific to that moment, but that moment's gone. That moment was already gone. But then here's a strange thing of it becoming a time machine where every few nights I'm transported right back to that kid that just got his heart wrenched away from him, and I remember every detail as I'm singing this song. And neither is more emotionally potent. But both are kind of surprising. I don't mean to be building my own songs up at this because I do a lot of cover songs and I feel that when I do cover songs, too. I think it's just the nature of music.

Every few nights I'm transported right back to that kid that just got his heart wrenched away from him.

When you did the Covered and Taped EP in 2017, how did you land on the songs? You have Julien Baker, and then Justin Bieber right after.

I think it's inarguable that Justin Bieber's an incredible singer and performer. It's not a style of music that I gravitate towards very often. But I heard "Love Yourself" in a car and I was astounded. It was so bare and honest, and it made me understand that the kid has depth. And I kind of became obsessed with that song. That was a really brave song for him to do. When you're a pop star, taking all the tricks away is a really brave thing. The lyrics do two of my favorite things: they elicit a true emotional response and have a little humor to lighten the load. And I just found myself playing it a lot. I've done a lot of cover records, with that one, I didn't know I was making an EP. I just was like, "I'm enjoying these songs, I'm going to record them."

And then with Julien, she was making her sophomore record, I believe, in Memphis. I had a friend that was coming through to work on a record with her and he stopped and stayed at my house on the way. The next day, I was thinking about them being there together and wishing I was just with my friends. So in a small way of being able to connect and feel like I was there, I recorded "Sprained Ankle" and just sent it to her. It was my manager who put the record out. I would love to say that I had this genius idea. I had sent it to him because I was pleased with the song, and next thing I know I'm like, "Wait, how'd I get a record out of this?" He's like, "Surprise!"

Who else is out there right now that you think is doing really honest and personal songs?

I think Halsey is radical in her honesty and exploration of the heart. In another world she'd be an indie darling, you know? If her taste was just a little different, she'd be a legend in the indie world instead of a legend in the pop world. I think she's just unstoppable. And then with Ed Sheeran, it's become a thing to tease about how good his songs are.

He's become a bit of a pop culture punching bag.

That's just the craziest thing I've ever heard. The guy is so tapped in to that beautiful, rare understanding of what songs could be to the listener's heart. I think he's just absolutely, absolutely incredible. But there's a lot about pop that I don't understand. At this point I don't even know the way genre lines are crossing, or what they play on the different playlists, or on radio stations that are "alternative." A lot of stuff is just pop now. Which is not my favorite, because I like when alternative is the alternative to pop. But that's really not a terrible criticism of much of anything. It's just an observation. And I only bring that up to say that it makes me feel like something really strong and amazing and reactionary is about to happen.

Do you think it's harder to be a musician starting off now, because not only do you have to be a good musician, but you also have to be good at Instagram and good at Twitter and all of that?

I really enjoyed it when it was personal to be in the physical presence of people. I still will stand in the club that I'm playing in while watching the other bands. If people want to say hi, I'd love to talk with them. I really like to get to know the people. I don't want to talk about why they like my songs, I just want to know who they are a little bit. It's a really rewarding thing to get to understand a little bit about their lives. And social media is a great avenue to do that. It's just short form. And I happen to enjoy long form a little bit more. I don't know if it's easier or harder. I think it's strange. It's maybe both.

Now, you have this slightly more level playing field where maybe you don't need that smash hit and that giant record label to make a name for yourself. But on the other hand, I always find it peculiar when I see a band that is great at social media and has one of those absurd play count numbers, nearing a billion or something like that, but they are opening shows or playing the small, small venues. I often wonder if it exists so solely on the social media world that people are less motivated to go actually experience this in person.

At the same time, it can be a way for musicians to get to show their personality. For example, your Twitter is very funny. Do you feel like it's there where you can show, "Hey, I'm not sad all the time"?

I'm a pretty joyful guy, and at risk of sounding like I'm pumping myself up here, I'm generally pretty witty and funny. And that's because I'm not sitting around being sad. And that would be what I would assume about some of these bands, like The Cure. My first thought wouldn't be, "That Robert Smith, this poor guy's the saddest guy that's ever lived." I highly doubt it. Like me, I imagine that if he's feeling that way, he's got a great way to just get it out. The people that walk around mopey don't have a healthy outlet. I do have a healthy outlet for it. I think there are people that would really like me to be the character of this sad, sad [character], and they would be disappointed to know that I'm a whole person. But my fans that have been with me for years now, they get it. They get that there's a celebratory nature to what we do.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.