When Chris Carrabba was 17, he had no idea that in the next 10 years he and his band DASHBOARD CONFESSIONAL would become largely responsible for introducing emo to the mainstream. At 32, Carrabba has become one of the scene’s “elder” statesmen, yet continues to compete with his greatest opposition-himself.
INTERVIEW: Leslie Simon
PHOTO: Ryan Russell
Thanks to numerous false starts and a revolving lineup of producers, fans waited nearly three years for Dashboard Confessional’s last album Dusk And Summer, which seemed to be plagued from the beginning. “The [recording] process was a taxing thing because of the length and time it took, the process with which it was attended to, and how many people had opinions,” says DC frontman Chris Carrabba of the album’s inception. “There were decisions I made on that record that I kind of regret.”
As to not make the same mistake twice, Carrabba decided to do things differently with his next album. This time around, he’d avoid the hype, the attention and the expectations. The result is The Shade Of Poison Trees, an album that took everyone by surprise simply because no one knew it existed until five weeks before its release. “I didn’t want [my fans] to get to the point where they should start waiting,” explains Carrabba. “I wanted to beat that wonderment.” As if sneaking an album into production wasn’t enough of a feat, Carrabba’s already gearing up for the next release.
AP caught up with the Dashboard Confessional frontman on a short, but well-needed break at his home in Boca Raton, Florida, to his unexpected new album, the pursuit of a private life and advice on how to take an insult.
Are there any songs you won’t play live anymore because they’re too personal?
There are songs that I wouldn’t play for a while because of whatever reason, but there are no songs that I’ve said, “I’ll never play again.” I’m trying to pull out everything for this tour. I did a song called “Living In Your Letters” for the first time since we taped MTV Unplugged 2.0 [in 2002]. Then there are songs like “This Bitter Pill,” which I had locked away a long time ago. It had become a song that had hung really heavy on me for some reason.
When you initially wrote songs that were seemingly so venomous toward whatever girl who’d done you wrong, did you mean for them to be acts of revenge?
[Laughs.] No, because you never think that anyone’s going to hear them at all, and certainly not the person you wrote about. It’s just cathartic. The songs that are angry or unhappy or whatever, they were genuinely born out of those feelings.
Have you ever heard a response from any of your exes who may’ve been the subject for some not-so-nice lyrics?
I’ve actually seen them [at shows], and I’ve caught their expressions. You can see it cutting them a little bit. I can’t help but feel bad.
Well, whatever we’d gone through, we’ve gone through it. At this point, I’m not in the business of punishing anybody. But, that being said… [Pauses.] In the past, I might have enjoyed that a little bit more. [Laughs.] It’s one of the better revenges. I try to dress up the subject matter a little more now, so whoever the subject is doesn’t know [if it’s them or not], which is almost worse. Now, they wonder. Every time, they wonder.
While you’re trying to deflect attention, so many bands today are fighting for the spotlight. Nothing’s off-limits. How do you manage to keep your private life private-and actually have people respect that?
You know, it never occurred to me that anyone from our scene would ever do what they do now-ever. So it was never a question. Number one, it’s not part of my personality, which maybe you wouldn’t expect if you only listen to my music. Once they get to know me, a lot of people are surprised that I’m a different kind of person in my life than I am in my songs. That’s because that’s where I get out my bullshit. I have no desire at all to live that out publicly. I knew that it could be advantageous to my career, but it would kill my creativity.
This scene was built on accessibility, but now you’ve got stuff like live blogging and bands in bubbles. Have bands today gone too far?
Let’s use that band-in-a-bubble thing. I have only heard good things about [Cartel], but the only exposure I ever had to them was that [show.] It’s not about being accessible; it’s about, “Hey, look at me. Listen to me. Check me out.” It’s become about grandstanding-and grandstanding and accessibility are two different things.
There’s always the worry that if you’re not the center of attention, fans will forget about you.
Maybe I got my footing before things got harder, or before the shelf life got shorter. Now it’s the toughest thing. I don’t know why it is that I’m allowed things that other bands aren’t-like longevity, so far, and the ability to change and do the things I want to do to drive my career. It’s more difficult for [bands] coming in now. Who are people going to listen to forever? I don’t know, but I have a hunch it’s bands like Manchester Orchestra, who people are discovering on their own and sharing with each other. They’re doing it for what seems to be a genuine reason. They’re not insisting on opportunities for opportunities’ sake, which is something I’ve never done and I can’t stand.
You said yourself that you’re allowed certain concessions other bands aren’t. Is there a moment before you put out a new album where you worry that the fans won’t like the direction you’re taking?
Yeah, I wonder; I wonder every time. But that’s not the same as fearing they’re not going to.
The Shade Of Poison Trees is really a return to the era of The Places You Have Come To Fear The Most in that it’s primarily acoustic and overtly lovelorn, yet you seem pretty content with life. How do you write sad songs without actually being, well, sad?
I mainly only write songs about my Italian sports cars breaking down because it’s hard to get parts [in Florida]. That makes me sad. That breaks my heart. [Laughs.]
Yeah, my life is cushier in some fashion than it ever was, but it’s a lot rockier in some places, too. I’ve got a lot to draw on. I haven’t had the easiest life and one day, when nobody cares anymore, I’ll tell you about it. I’m not a silver-spoon rich kid who grew up with no problems or hardships. There are plenty of things that have gone on in my life that I will always be able to draw on-and I have on this record. I’ve drawn on things from my present, and I’ve drawn on a couple experiences from my past that I never let myself think about.
As if you’re not already busy enough, you’re already in the studio recording another record. What gives?
Making The Shade Of Poison Trees was a way back in. I don’t know how to explain it other than that. I was feeling a little disgusted with the music scene, and I was feeling a little curious about my own place and my own part in it. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the process of making records. Coming out of [the recording of] The Shade Of Poison Trees, I really knew what it should be again, and I made it that way. I felt like the world was still worth exploring as a songwriter, so I just started writing songs that are more personal to me.
I was home [in Florida] for basically six weeks and recorded The Wire Tapes, which is a covers record [see sidebar], and 18 new songs. That’s a tremendous amount of work, and that’s how I used to do it. You don’t have any time to think about if the [song] you finished just a second ago was any good before you’re writing the next one.
You tend to say every single album is your “most personal album.” How can that be?
Well… [Long pause.] That’s because you have different reasons for saying that every time. My first records [Swiss Army Romance and The Places You Have Come To Fear The Most], which I often speak of as one, were personal because it’s self-evident. A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar was personal to me because I was fighting for something, but I wasn’t sure what. Dusk And Summer was personal because I had to win it back. I don’t even know what that means, but I know I did. For me to get a hold of that thing, I had to invest my whole heart into the process. For a while, it seemed like it was everybody else’s: It was the listener waiting for [the album]; it was the kid who liked “Vindicated,” who demanded I had more songs like that to listen to; it was the kid who liked Places who was waiting, hoping like hell that I’d never write another song like “Vindicated;” it was the people at the distributor who needed it by the fourth quarter, who didn’t get it and didn’t get it the next year or the next year. Just getting Dusk And Summer released was a big personal moment for me.
But The Shade Of Poison Trees was me re-establishing who I am. I’m reminding myself and letting myself be that. With this album that I’m writing next, when I say it’s the most personal to me, I’ve started with that mindset. I don’t need a reminder.
Who’s the person that The Shade Of Poison Trees is reminding you that you are?
Fiercely independent and somebody who knows what they want to do, whether or not anybody’s going to like him. I got fooled into caring a little bit about what people said just because there’s such an abundance of opinions. The internet’s such an amazing thing. It’s a great tool, but it’s also this amazingly foolish [place] where people have no accountability whatsoever. Thusly, they say really bold things in a very pussified way. It’s not that I can’t take an insult-I’m Italian. [Laughs.] It’s just that that shit doesn’t exist when you’re just a kid in a room with a guitar. It doesn’t occur to you-and it shouldn’t. ALT
UNDER THE WIRE
In between writing and recording two records (yeah, no big deal), Dashboard Confessional also managed to spit out an exclusive tour-only LP, The Wire Tapes Volume 1, featuring some of the band’s favorite songs. “I was in Florida, [guitarist] John [Lefler] was in Texas, [bassist] Scott [Schoenbeck] was in Milwaukee, and [drummer Mike] Marsh was also in Florida, but five hours away,” recounts singer Chris Carrabba, “and we were sending tracks back and forth, working at a fevered pace. It was a really, really fun thing to do.”
With such a diverse tracklisting-from the Movielife’s “Valens” to Men At Work’s “Overkill” to Regina Spektor’s “Better”-how did the band go about creating a set of criteria for what to include? “I thought about several things, like bands we’ve toured with, songs we love and can’t stop loving and the people who have inspired me,” insists Carrabba, who says there aren’t any plans for Volume 2. “At 5 in the morning, after [the rest of the songs were done], I thought, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be funny to start with that They Might Be Giants song?’” remembers Carrabba, of the album’s opening track, They Might Be Giants’ “Theme From Flood.” “I sent [my version of the song] to Johnny and a couple other people, and they thought I had sent them the [actual] They Might Be Giants track.” Good to know that if this whole Dashboard thing doesn’t work out, Carrabba can always start a TMBG tribute band. The potential for band names (Particle Men? Birdhouse Soul?) seem staggering… [LS]