a long talk

Dashboard Confessional Still Belongs

“If we’re a legacy act and if there’s a legacy, I hope it’s that the people that made us popular are proud of it,” Chris Carrabba says, staring at the midtown high-rises through a window inside Warner Music’s New York City offices, home to his current label, Fueled by Ramen. In the mid-2000s, Dashboard Confessional, the band that has long been misunderstood as his solo project, shepherded the emo genre to commercial success, soundtracking Spider-Man and teenage heartache. At 42, Carrabba is now considered an emo forebear, and it turns out that his biggest fan might be Taylor Swift. He isn’t quite sure what to do with that responsibility now.

Carrabba’s about to release his seventh Dashboard Confessional album, Crooked Shadows, and first with the band in nine years. But emo doesn’t hold the same cultural cachet that it did a decade ago, and its makeover since then is challenging his place in the now-splintered scene.

Over the course of two hours, Carrabba took stock of emo’s history, wrestled with what the scene should do about the allegations against Brand New’s Jesse Lacey, opened up about his bad deal with Jimmy Iovine, and defended Taylor Swift.

Thank you for making a short album. Nine songs is so refreshing.
That was a battle and internal struggle because I have so many songs and I’ve taken such a long break that the impulse was to have something to show for this time off, but I like short records. So I had to surrender that idea. I already got the job. I don’t know that I need to keep proving that I have. There’s plenty of time to release the other stuff.

There’s something to be said for curation.
And especially the way we consume music now. I’m a guy that grew up listening to whole records and obsessing over whole records and don’t anymore as much. I listen to playlists that I make or that are sent to me or that are curated for me, like everybody else. But when I do find a record I love now, it’s usually the short ones.

That goes against what’s popular right now in the streaming era, which is to beef up track lists to game the charts.
I understand the merit of that. I just don’t care.

Because you were making music before streaming.
I was. Also, I’m not a record label. They might care, but mine were totally onboard with a short record and that was one of the many reasons Fueled by Ramen is the place to be for me for this record.

For my generation, Fueled by Ramen is the mecca of emo. They really championed that genre and fought for its legitimacy. I’m surprised it took you so long to sign there.
The reason it took so long was that I was on Vagrant Records, which was sort of the West Coast version of Fueled by Ramen. They worked together on a lot of projects. There was a camp of bands that signed to Fueled By and another that signed to Vagrant. My friends ended up signing at Vagrant — the Get Up Kids, Alkaline Trio, Saves the Day —so that’s where I felt comfortable. But then as time went by, I got to know the Fueled By bands and they had their own little family. Then, inevitably, I did sign to a major label and during that time period, that’s when Fueled By became like a major label. That’s where I wanted to be.

But Jimmy Iovine made it impossible to say no to Interscope. The promises were too big and I believed him. I enjoyed my time there, but almost instantly knew I made the wrong choice. But you make decisions for other reasons. Other friends of mine went there – Jimmy Eat World, All American Rejects, AFI. I thought, Okay, this is looking good for me. It’s another version of being with my friends. It wasn’t quite the same. When we came back, I had one dart on the board: Fueled by Ramen. That was it, but I don’t think they wanted to sign me.

I find that hard to believe.
What I mean by that is, I don’t think they were looking around and waiting for Dashboard to come back. I just had this daydream that if I ever make another record, I’m going to lay down the tracks and see if I can win this label over onto my side. When they heard the songs, and called me up and said that they wanted to do the deal, it was as validating as anything I’ve ever experienced. Because I took so much time off and I spent so much time writing the songs when the inspiration finally came, to have the folks that were my first choice hear it and say, “We’re in,” really made me feel like I’m not fooling myself. I struck on something pure here with this music. It’s been the best experience of my life so far.

So you pitched them an already-completed album?
Yeah, pretty much.

Wow, that’s a bold approach.
Well, sort of. I came with what could have been several different records because I had 60 songs. Mike Easterlin, who is the head of Fueled By and is essentially my A&R guy, decided to get his hands dirty with me and the project and help sort out the songs. I’ve had constructive criticism before, but I think a lot of people that I’ve worked with in the past understand that my songs are unconventional. So when they’ve come to me with suggestions, it’s really trepidatious. They want to give me the advice that I need to hear but they’re almost afraid to give it to me because they know that what makes it work is that I write slightly weird songs, and they don’t want to accidentally ruin it with convention. But those weren’t the kinds of notes I was getting. They probably knew the right answer but didn’t give it to me. They said, “Here’s what’s wrong, now go fishing.” They helped me say some hard good-byes to some songs that I was absolutely certain, must, should, definitely have to be on the record and they aren’t. I can’t wait for the next record already because I have some songs that I think are really great.

Can you talk about why signing with Interscope was a mistake and how you knew it right away?
I don’t know that I knew right away. And it wasn’t that it was wrong for me, it just wasn’t quite right in the way I expected it to be right.

How so?
I signed for Jimmy Iovine’s legacy of being this maverick. When I signed there, he was being a maverick, but I think he was finished with rock and roll. He was really concentrating at that time on pop music, breaking pop music very, very wide. We were never going to get the attention that the Pussycat Dolls got. He found that much more interesting at the time. I think he found it harder to do. He probably loves taking something that he thinks is hard to do and making it work. But he was super supportive of the band and wanted us to be successful. We just caught him a year or two late or maybe a year or two early. But he was so great to us.

When it was time for us to go, he let us go graciously. I just said, “Jimmy, I don’t think we make the kind of records that you want to make right now and I think maybe we should go.” He said [imitates Iovine’s voice], “All right. You got it, buddy.” He just let me go and that just doesn’t happen. So I have nothing but great, wonderful things to say about Interscope and my time there. People there were wonderful. But it was a big company. Fueled by Ramen is not a big company. This is where I came up. I came up with mom-and-pops. Though this has the far reach of a big company. And so many of my friends’ bands are on the label and people that live in my neighborhood are on the label. Paramore lives down the street.

That feeling you were describing about Iovine losing interest in bands — do you think that happened to a lot of your peers? I notice there are so many now signed to these major labels that struggle to market them. I’m thinking specifically right now of the new Fall Out Boy album. It appears that the majors haven’t figured out how to get both fans of a new generation and of the generation that loved these bands and will always love them to care.
It’s so interesting you say that because that would be the one that I would say is the premier success of our team. Fall Out Boy has transcended what we all were and they they keep changing their taste, just like we all do. But somehow it seems to be concurrent with what’s working in the music world all the time. I guess I didn’t notice that it’s not working because it seems to be working to me. But I will agree with you that there were a lot of bands from our scene signed, and only a few real success stories. I think the labels saw that that we collectively had very large audiences that were very dedicated. They thought, We’ll just be the ones that put out the record. They’ve already got the audience. I’m not sure that labels knew how to help broaden the audience for those bands, if that was the band’s goal. In some cases, it took the wind out of the band’s sales and I think it maybe ended bands’ careers. Not because their fans didn’t care, but because they just became disheartened. In other cases, they rose above and became something altogether more powerful, like My Chemical Romance. Now that was a story of success, though. That was a success story of every measure.

And yet even they bowed out.
Which is interesting to me because of all the bands that have come and gone, that’s the one that I miss the most. They were if Smashing Pumpkins and Queen had a baby. I just thought they were so much more than the trappings of what the outside world defined our scene as. They rose out beyond the confines of what people thought our scene was supposed to be, and then they bowed out. That was that. Then went on to their other artistic endeavors, which I’m excited about, but they left fans like me waiting and waiting and waiting for the next record.

Your fans might say the same about Dashboard.
I understand, but the truth is I could have written a Dashboard record at any time. By that I mean I could have written a record that had all the earmarks of what a Dashboard record’s supposed to sound like. Tonally, it would have sounded like a Dashboard record and it may have felt like a Dashboard record. But it would have been disingenuous to release something for the sake of satisfying an audience or a label when I wasn’t all the way there. I knew that was wrong for several reasons. One, I just know it’s wrong. But two, I knew it wouldn’t work. Maybe it would work the first week it was out. People would be excited about these new songs, but they wouldn’t have held them. So I had to wait, and I thought I’d wait a year and then I thought I’d wait two years. Suddenly, seven or eight years had gone by. Actually, it was six before I started writing again.

My fans didn’t complain. They were vocal that they wanted a new record but they didn’t turn on me. We kept doing shows and they kept coming. I thought when we came back from our break from touring, we’d be playing small clubs and we were playing amphitheaters. That allowed me to have patience; that trust that they seem to have in me and that I had in them was really liberating. So I could just wait until the songs came out.

Boy, when they came out, they came out. Finally. I remember writing the first song: I woke up, I wrote a song, and I said, “That’s a Dashboard song.” I finished it and thought, I better not try to do that tomorrow. I didn’t want to start forcing things. Then the next morning I woke up and I ran to my guitar as fast as I could and wrote another one. Again I thought, Don’t do it again tomorrow, Chris. Same thing. I just kept running until I realized, “Oh, this is it.”

Why fight it?
I wasn’t sure. Could I trust it yet and was it a tease? Was it going to break my heart? I thought maybe it would. But it didn’t break my heart. It was back. I was back.

When Dashboard started performing again, all those shows sold out. Did it prove to you that there was still an appetite for this music or did you already know that the audiences would come, and this was more like insurance? Both for you, creatively, and to show labels that there is still room in this culture for this music.
No. I had no idea. I just had no expectations. I was happily doing my side project with my friends, Twin Forks, and very happily playing the smallest clubs and touring in a band and thinking to myself, “This may be it and I love it.” Do I love it as much as Dashboard? Not in the same way, but I really love it. It’s special to me. So in that, I felt very satisfied. We kept saying no to shows and when Riot Fest came around, it was by virtue of the fact that all my friends were playing and that’s the only reason we said yes. I really expected us to be playing to an empty field because two other really big bands were playing at the same time. I thought, “There will be so few people there. Maybe we can cut our set short and I can run over and see the other bands playing.”

But what happened was there was something like 30,000 people when we played. We walked offstage and we were a band again, simple as that. I don’t know that it was because there were so many people. I think it was that it was the specific people that were there.

Who were they?
The crowd looked just like our crowd always looked. We’re not like other bands from our scene where everybody wears the same … almost costumes. Our crowd is very disparate, but they’re openhearted in the moment and that’s what I saw out there. This effusive release. There was no doubt in my mind that it would lead to playing basement shows again. I was just shocked when we booked our first tour. We booked it for really small rooms and they just sold and sold and so we kept bumping the room size up until we were in these really big rooms. I thought to myself, “This is a weird cosmic joke because this will be one time and that will be that. Then I’ll be really disappointed.”

But it kept on like that. I would then walk out there and just mill about and got to meet hundreds of people a day. All of this infused me with that sense that I had in the beginning, that I’m just a part of something. I think people think, “Oh, he’s the guy that does it. We just follow.” No way. I get to be a part of this with everybody else.

You do these shows and have this vote of confidence to come back, but it’s also been almost a decade since your last album. In that time off, emo has come back in a big, almost unrecognizable way. Do you ever feel like a fish out of water even though you essentially built the pond?
That’s an interesting way to put it but I think I’ve always felt like the oddball no matter what. Even when we were the poster boy of emo, which was what they called us, which was always weird to me. We sounded the least like the other bands. The other bands had a more obvious through line to each other and ours was less obvious. But what I recognize in this generation of emo now is, it’s more relevant to the bands that I listened to that inspired us. They’re digging further back than our era.

Really? I don’t particularly hear the history.
They’re digging back to Sunny Day [Real Estate], Mineral, and Sense Field. I can list a whole bunch of bands that nobody’s ever heard of, but that’s what they sound like to me: American Football, Cap’n Jazz. And then there are bands that sound like our era, but through whatever filter of today’s music, they’re able to infuse into that, too. But I’ve always just made the record I’ve made and I haven’t been very concerned with the state of affairs of the rest of the scene. Because no matter what, we all feel like we belong together, even if our music is different in some ways. Our ethos is the same. I play shows with those bands we’re talking about. I take those bands on tour. I love them. I’m a fan. It’s a great time to be fan of that style of music and it’s something I’ve been waiting for myself.

Your return could be perceived as capitalizing on nostalgia, especially now that there’s been a revival. Was there ever concern that your intentions might be misconstrued?
I’m not nostalgic for anything because I didn’t have to let it go. There can’t be nostalgia if it’s currently part of your life still. My relationship with my fans continues. There’s an influx of these new exciting bands that are doing something related to what we started doing, or the things that inspired us to do what we did. I just made the record I made at the time I made it. I actually thought that what people call the “emo revival” — I thought I missed it. It seemed like it was a couple of years ago to me.

It was.
So if I was being opportunistic, I would have put the record out three years ago. But I didn’t have a record to put out.

I think we’re seeing that there are things to love and be remembered about emo and that era that were worthwhile, but that it also caused some residual pain that has not been dealt with until now. I can’t have a conversation with you about emo and not bring up what happened with Brand New last year.
So upsetting.

Talk me through your reaction to allegations that Jesse Lacey preyed on teenage girls. You have personal history with him because you personally hired them as your opener back when they were unknown.
My first reaction was disbelief. I could not equate the behavior I’d seen to the behavior being reported. I wasn’t as close with those guys during that period of time when this went down. We drifted apart, these things happen. But I was disheartened … I had disbelief because it’s hard to reconcile. There were no outside indicators that said this guy’s got a problem and is being a problem and is — what’s the right way to phrase this? … and is frankly harming people. I just didn’t see any of it, but I certainly watched and read as the reporting come out. And when he admitted it, I was so sad for these girls, women — well, they were girls, I guess. [Ed. note: In a statement at the time, Lacey said he had a sex addiction but did not respond to specific allegations.]

They were.
On one hand, I felt really sad for them [the victims] and on the other hand I felt a lot of respect for them for standing up in the face of a fan base that is loud and wasn’t ready to believe that. I can’t imagine that was easy. But I don’t know that the behavior by several people is emblematic of a problem within our scene. I think it’s emblematic of a problem within our society.

Every industry of entertainment right now is taking a look back at its history and putting a magnifying glass to it. Does this specific scene deserve its own reckoning?
That the scene I’m from deserves it?

Emo, yes.
Well, I suppose now is the time for every corner of genres to examine their behavior.

It was one of the first subgenres that was really established and popularized online. Young women invested in these bands on fan forums and then organized their dedication to take their bands to the top of the charts.

These bands were male-dominated and their fans were largely young girls. I vividly remember there being this unspoken contract between fans and bands that we were going to develop this personal-seeming relationship online, while also publicizing fandoms. Do you think there need to be conversations now among bands, particularly men, reflecting on that?
I don’t know that I can answer for other people. I can only answer for myself. I think I’ve asked that question continually through my career: Am I handling this right? Now is the time, but it’s always the time.

I guess it’s a matter of, if these were supposed to be safe spaces for fans, did bands do all they could to protect the safety of these girls?
It’s been something that I feel I’ve done through my whole career. I don’t know that the scene needs to be guilty by association. I think it would be a mistake for us — you and I, as fans of this scene, not me as in a band — to feel like it was all for naught because a few people made bad choices. Most people made really good choices. It’s important right now to focus on those people that made bad choices and the people that were victimized by those choices. I don’t know how to help them heal, but I think there’s some duty we have collectively as a scene to prove to those people, the victims, that they weren’t wrong to believe in what we were all doing together, but what happened to them was wrong.

You’re still friends with a lot of men from that era. Have there been conversations?
Absolutely. It shattered our [world]. Suddenly we’re reevaluating our friend who we thought was one way and is maybe that way but is also another way. We’re all talking about it. I think we’re assessing our own behavior in retrospect. I certainly have. I’ve thought through every situation I could think of that could even be misconstrued and it’s an inventory worth taking. You’re asking if all of these bands that are friends are talking to each other about [Lacey]? Honestly, we’re talking less about the handful of people that have done these things than we are about the women who’ve come forward and what they had to find inside, in terms of strength, to do that.

I’ve been disappointed watching backlash against some of these victims from a fan base that was unified and refused to believe that someone could have gotten hurt. Anyone can get hurt anytime and they have the right to say so. It’s disheartening. It seems like incidents of this occurrence are higher than they actually are, which I think is a really good thing. It’s such a point of concern that it seems pervasive. I don’t know if it’s pervasive, but it’s better to operate under the auspices that this is a massive problem. So how do we fix it?

I can only control me and I just continue to try to walk a straight line. It’s upsetting. These girls weren’t wrong to be trusting. That was what our whole scene was built on. What happened to them because of that, that’s wrong. I really hope that there’s a way that we can continue to trust each other within this scene without really horrible things happening. We were a scene and I believe are a scene where the biggest cornerstone is that we take care of each other. This will ensure that that actually won’t change. I hope, anyway.

You’ve said before that you prefer your older work. Do you still feel that way even after this album?
Well, I like this stuff because it has brought me back to what I like about the older stuff.

Which was what?
That’s really hard to define. It may be impossible to define. It’s a feeling only I can understand and I don’t know how to verbalize it but it is as heavy as an anchor. It is something I have absolute certainty about. I know exactly what the song needs and wants to be and I’m able to make it that.

I internalize in the moment the songs and the ones that resonate with me. Everything up through about half of Dusk and Summer is one era and then everything after was this fork in the road where I always wondered what would have happened if I had taken the other fork. So the goal was to go back and find that other road and and treat this record like I was making my first record. But I know what I know now about how to make music and what instruments to use and just not shying away from the skill sets I’ve developed, but treating it with the same urgency. When I made my first record, I thought, “This will be the only record I probably ever get to make,” and that’s how I approached this record. I might be right, by the way. This may be the only record I’ll ever get to make again. I wanted to be as deeply committed and honest as I could possibly be.

We’ve talked a lot about the past, but it’s important to remember how young you all were when your respective bands caught on. You’re considered a legacy act in this genre but you’re only 42.
When you turn 40, you say to yourself, “Am I young anymore?” The answer I came up with was, “Yeah, I think I am.” I managed to never close the door on youth by virtue of the lucky straw that I pulled. I get to make music so that’s like the fountain of youth. But I’ve seen some shit and I’m seeing some shit. Now we’re seeing some shit, like with the #MeToo movement. I don’t want to harp back to this, but, Dee, just like you, [the Jesse Lacey allegations] broke my heart. I’ve seen more shit in my life than most people will see in their whole lives. I’ve had a complicated life, but I had a complicated life as a child and a teenager. So that’s kind of par for the course for me.

Are we a legacy act? We are. But we have a record coming out, so does that make us a legacy act and a current act?

I think that is a question every band from your era is wrestling with.
I haven’t asked it in the process, just wondered what will shake out. Who knows?

I don’t think anyone my age — which is 27 — imagined that the bands that were around when we were 14 would still be with us when we’re almost 30. No one expected that because no one knows what to do with a new genre. This is happening with rap: Jay-Z has to map out how to be a relevant aging rapper himself, because it’s not been done.
I think if I have an advantage, it’s that my songs, the ones that are older and the new ones, are malleable to who I am at this time and at any time. So the songs don’t get old to me even though they may have been written a long time ago or a couple of months ago. They change as I change and so they bear a lot of fruit. I can’t speak for other people and I can’t speak for the genre. I’ve always been wary to speak for the genre, even when we were talking about what’s wrong with the … Well, nothing’s wrong with the scene. I don’t mean to double back, but nothing’s wrong with the scene and there was nothing wrong with us trusting each other. Something bad happened. I don’t think that that should outweigh the fact that, as a collective group, we have and are doing something special, fans and artists together, because that is unique to our scene.

The advantage some men are taking over some girls and women, that’s not specific to our scene. But what is specific to our scene is the fact that we are artists and fans in this together. So if we’re a legacy act and if there’s a legacy, I hope it’s that the people that made us popular are proud of doing that.

When music writers talk about the renewed interest in the scene, I don’t think Taylor Swift gets enough credit for introducing Dashboard to a new generation. How did you two even connect?
I met her online. She was posting something about singing “Hands Down” at the top of her lungs so I DM’d her and that began a friendship. We started going to each other’s shows. I think by then she’d already told people that I was an influence for her.

I can absolutely hear it in her work.
I hear it too and I’m kind of proud of that. She’s been vocal online about her appreciation of our music and it’s caused her fans to come and investigate, see what’s there. Every show since she’s said that I’ve influenced her, someone has come up to me and said, “I heard about you from Taylor Swift and now I love your band.”

How do you feel about that?
I feel great about that. It’s a macro version of word of mouth. That’s the way our whole scene came into popularity was just word of mouth. She just has a big ol’ megaphone, but you know.

Have you guys continued a relationship after you guys met and you sang at her best friend’s party?
Yeah, she’s very kind. I really don’t like when people pick on her.

Do you feel she’s misunderstood?
I just think that people like to build somebody up and then knock them down. I’ll never get that. I’ll never understand that. She’s a good person. Her music is fucking great. She is super brave. She could write the same song over and over again but she’s jumping genres. She’s writing about different things. She’s navigating the world of ultra fame with grace. She still manages to be kind to the people she knows and the people she doesn’t know. What more can you say about somebody?

Taylor is the rare pop star who writes on all of her own songs, but have you thought to enter the studio with her and see where a songwriting session takes you two?
I do a bit. We talked about it. She’s on a tear with Jack [Antonoff] right now. I think in time it may come to pass, or it won’t. It doesn’t really matter if we actually write together or not but I think we would write something good and special together. But there’s no burning rush for me to do that. If that kind of thing happens, it will just happen.

So who do you write for? It seems you could easily have a whole second career as a songwriter.
I write for some of the American Idol winners. I write for a handful of people.

I quietly write for other people.

That’s an interesting way to put that.
I enjoy it. I find it to be very challenging to write from somebody else’s point of view. I quite like it and I think it makes my writing for myself much stronger.

How has the way that you approach songwriting changed over the years?
That’s a really good question because it has come back to the original way. The methodology of writing is just manners by which you can trick yourself into stumbling into a song. The better you get, the more you become a craftsman of some kind. You know which tools to grab. You know how hot to make the flame if you’re working with steel. In the beginning of Dashboard, I would put my guitar in these very strange tunings and see what came out, turning the whole thing on its ear so that I could find a new inroad. Then later I would just write lyrics first, which never panned out as well.

Then I would write at the piano, which was really rewarding in the moment, but I didn’t think delivered what I was hoping. This record came down to me racing against the clock. I wouldn’t start the clock until there was inspiration, but then I’d be like, “If there’s no song here in an hour, there’s no song here.”

That’s really strict.
But it reminded me of when I wrote the Swiss Army Romance. I wrote most of it on my lunch breaks, so I only had exactly an hour. The immediacy is apparent. It’s not labored over in a bad way where you smooth off all the edges and made something really pretty but not beautiful. Sometimes the jagged edges are what makes it beautiful and then you smooth them. It’s just pretty, so what? The other thing was that I recorded the songs that same day. As soon as the song was written, I’d record it. I figured it’s not going to be the best vocal performance of that song I’ll ever do. I’ll get better at singing the song, but I’m not sure I’ll ever be as connected to that song as I am five minutes after I wrote it and I’m singing it with every bit of feeling that I still have that I just poured into these words. The rawness delivers. Yeah, I could have had a better note here or there, my voice wouldn’t have cracked here or there, but it would have been worse instead of better.

Do you like where emo is headed? To now see Lil Uzi Vert become a face of the “new emo” feels progressive. There’s more inclusion than there ever was.
Was it not inclusive? No one said, “You can’t be in this band or you can’t do this.” It interesting who it interested at the time for people to be in bands, but it is nice to see. I felt like the fan base was female-driven in terms of breaking the bands, but there was not a lot of females in bands. But now you have Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker. It’s really exciting to me that there’s more female representation. It just proves the inverse is equal. I would sing these songs that were steeped in emotion and men and women would connect the same way I would. I listen to Phoebe and it doesn’t matter that she’s a woman singing about how she feels. I’m hearing the song and feeling what I feel and thinking that she wrote this just for me.

And I’d say 80 percent of the time we make sure we have a band on tour with us that has a woman in it. I like to have women on my records and I like to be in bands with women, which is why Twin Forks has three women in the band. Music is not football.

How do you feel about rap adapting emo and taking ownership of it? If you’ve ever heard “XO Tour Llif3,” can you hear your influence?
I don’t feel surprised at all. My lyrics are pretty rapid fire, very wordy. And I listened to a lot of hip-hop, emulated it. I was kind of mashing up my hip-hop roots with my obsession with the Cure and that’s kind of what led to Dashboard. I didn’t talk about it too much at the time because nobody seemed to ask. Historically speaking, there’s so much attention to lyrics in hip-hop. I can’t think of another rock genre where that’s as important other than the one I’m from. So I don’t find it surprising at all. I love it, frankly. I’m a big fan of what’s happening with the lines being blurred.

How do you want Dashboard Confessional to be remembered?
As the band I’m going to go see next summer.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Dashboard Confessional’s Chris Carrabba on His Emo Legacy