It was no surprise that Dashboard Confessional became synonymous with the emo movement of the midaughts. As pop punk proliferated on the airwaves, Dashboard cemented their role at the vanguard of the emo music scene with impossibly catchy, angst-ridden songs that charted volatile emotional territory. Where Fall Out Boy records were goofy and Taking Back Sunday tracks morose, Dashboard songs traced familiar aches with tenderness and precision. “Hands Down” became something of an unofficial teenage makeout anthem, “Screaming Infidelities” the soundtrack to a million heartbreaks.
The band rocketed to national success as emo music enjoyed mainstream popularity: Two consecutive Dashboard albums — 2003’s A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar and 2006’s Dusk and Summer — peaked at no. 2 on the Billboard 200, with the latter reaching no. 1 on the rock chart.
It’s been more than eight years since the last Dashboard Confessional album, but frontman Chris Carrabba hasn’t stopped working. In the time since 2009’s Alter the Ending, he has toured extensively with the band, collaborated with new indie darlings like Cash Cash and Lindsey Stirling, and served as lead songwriter for folk rock band Twin Forks.
Now Carrabba is ready to refocus on the art that first moved him. On Friday, the band will release Crooked Shadows, their first full-length project since Alter the Ending. Ahead of the LP release, The Ringer spoke to Carrabba about the band’s hiatus, overcoming artistic fear, and the future of emo. This interview has been condensed and edited.
Where does the story of this record begin for you?
I guess it began with trying to fight it off. Dashboard had taken a hiatus from touring after quite a long time of a heavy touring schedule. And when we came back to touring again [in 2015], we were kind of shocked that we didn’t have to start back in clubs and basement shows and stuff. Our fan base had stayed active in our absence, so we were playing amphitheaters and large venues. So I started to get real anxious about this need I started to feel to write new Dashboard songs. Wherever I was as a writer at that time was not the same place that I came to be later when that record started to develop. I was hyperaware of that. And so I tried really hard not to write a record for a few years, probably a good two years or more after we began touring again [in 2015].
Then the songs just sort of began to arrive and I was still hesitant and resistant. I began to realize that, if this is clear to me that if I was going to make a new record, it had to be important by my estimation and by a definition that I couldn’t even tell you. Some metrics that I figured that I would know with a gut check. And so I just waited. I don’t think anybody was super-psyched that we were waiting to put out new music after waiting to come back and tour. I think even my bandmates were like, “We get to record now, right?” But once I did start writing, and once I realized that whatever it is that I feel that I have to say now about things that range from as broad as the state of the political world and to as small as the relationships I’m involved in in my life, that I realized I have something important to talk about within that framework. And the songs just kind of came.
What made now feel like the right time to share the LP?
I think, strategically, a couple years ago might’ve been the right time to do it. I just put out records when I have a record. And I wish I could tell you that I had some grander design, but I never thought of this. One of my brothers, the other day, I think I said something like, I’m kind of lucky in that I haven’t overly had a career driven by design. And I’m also pretty lucky that I think I have it in me to be a really great songwriter, but I haven’t learned how yet. I think that’s helped me in that it does sound like I’m reaching for something.
Is putting more time and energy into the craft of songwriting something that you want to pursue in the future?
The way I write songs, it’s like this hurling and hulking kind of thing where things are going really, really fast and stop and then go really, really fast and then suddenly stop. The practice time that I put in serves its purpose when a song comes to a screeching halt when [I’m] writing it, and I can just wait for a second and not get scared off or just cast it aside and say, “Maybe that wasn’t as special a moment as I thought it was.” I just learned to have the patience. Even if it’s just a minute or two, to wait for the cycle to come around again.
Was the process of putting together Crooked Shadows different than prior albums?
I take some time to assess the work that I’ve done and where I thought it was most effective for me personally. So I didn’t really listen to the records that we made. But once we came back as a touring act, of course you start playing these songs. And it’s strange. You’re not really like assessing anything about the song, you’re completely in the moment.
Later, when you’re offstage and you’re reflecting on why things were powerful, that can be a slippery slope because you don’t really want to know. Because then you’ll expect it to be there, and it for sure won’t be if you expect it. You can trust it, but you can’t just expect it. One thing I did discover through reflection was that with Dusk and Summer and Alter the Ending — I guess after A Mark, A Mission and halfway through Dusk and Summer — if there was a proverbial fork in the road, I got pushed down one. And my own instincts would’ve taken me down the other path. But I wanted to grow and learn and I did. I’m grateful for the push.
But with this record I really wanted to explore what would things have been had I gone down the other path. It was the approach to the writing, but it was also the approach to the foundation for how I decided to record the record, which was in my basement, not in some fantastic studio that had the best equipment in the world and the nicest furniture. Instead I wanted to find a place or make a place that was not intended for what I was using it for.
There’s a sort of intimacy to this record that feels kind of personal and also shared. And it reminds me of some of the best moments from your 2002 MTV Unplugged set.
I would write these songs on my couch and then, within minutes, I’d be recording pretty much the version that you’d hear. It is the piece that I think has been missing from, or not there enough, in my records. Every band has this thing. Whatever our thing has been has always showed through better live. Which isn’t to say that I’m disappointed in the quality of our records — I’m not. I think we got there many times. But this is probably the most I think we’ve been able to catch in a microphone.
Sometimes when you make a record, you have the option of redoing things that maybe you don’t know at the time you shouldn’t redo, and so I tried not to do that much on this record. Instead I thought, let’s just capture this moment. Maybe if we need to go back, we’ll come back and see if this needs another attempt. But largely, you’re hearing our song, you’re hearing a recording that was done moments after the inception of the song.
What were some of the driving themes that you brought to the writing of Crooked Shadows?
I don’t often set a topic and then chase it. I really admire people that can set a framework and just write hits for other people. Well I’ll just write in the style of this so they can have this song and then I’ll write this whole other thing. I think that’s really impressive. I wasn’t dealt that hand. The way I write music, I’m only concerned with the song at hand. I get lucky later — if I write enough songs I can put together a record that tells a clear picture of where I must’ve been as a writer. But generally speaking, I’ll write three, four, five times the songs represented on the record in order to get to that place.
I would say that I’m introspective. But I’m also empathetic, I think. Sometimes the things I write about are the inner workings of my relationships, my life, or relationships I’ve had in the past. And I don’t know that I’m thinking about those things before I sit down and I hear a chord progression that just has a feeling to it. I just kind of follow the bread crumbs of that feeling of it, so to speak. When you’re in relationships with people, romantic ones with your wife or husband or girlfriend or boyfriend, sometimes you really can feel what they feel. But that’s true of relationships of every kind. Your friend’s going through something difficult; you internalize these things.
I’m not sure I realize that until I’m looking at a lyric that I thought only had to do with my life and then I realize, “Oh, wow. I was carrying that person’s weight with me, and now it’s a little bit off my shoulders.” Where it gears toward the other end of the spectrum is where I’m [inspired by] societal politics. I live in the real world. And it’s heated and ugly most of the time, unfortunately. I think it’s worth dissecting as a writer, and it’s not often that I am successful writing in that topic, because it’s a short format of writing. But once in a while I think I can whittle it down to its barest essentials and still get the grand point across that I’m trying to get across. That’s not so easy.
[“We Fight”] starts the record off with a challenge to the listener to believe and invest in the spaces and places and people who allow us to fight. And it’s clear that for you it’s been this community, this art.
And then all the way at the end of the record, [I explore] the way I feel about who I ended up being because of all of this. The things that you’ve experienced in life shape who you become. I think in the moment of writing [“We Fight”] I realized that that can really be wonderful, but in this case I probably could have gained more. I gained so much in quality of life, in every sense of the phrase, in my connections with people. I make a better living than I would have otherwise. I have tighter bonds with people because of this music that I make. It’s just as simple as that, because I endeavor down that road.
But I also think I might hold back a little bit from living all the way in the real world sometimes. There’s most of me that’s living the life that I’m living every moment. And then there’s a piece of me that’s saving this moment for later and will abandon this moment I’m in in a heartbeat to go chase a song. It’s thrilling. It’s hard, it’s very hard work, and sometimes it’s not very rewarding. Probably most often, it’s not rewarding. But when it is rewarding, it is exponentially rewarding.
How has the scene you see yourself as part of changed in the time that you’ve been a part of it?
For me, it was like the land of the misfit toys or something. All of these characters came together from wildly different backgrounds. Especially where I grew up, it was the very racially diverse South Florida scene. Split pretty much down the middle, gender-wise. I guess it was reactionary to the state of what we thought rock ’n’ roll was, so what we were was ethos-driven (or what I was invited into, I shouldn’t say this as if I created it).
I didn’t know if this was common or not back then, but the most proactive members of our scene I think were women who were putting on the shows, girls even, teens. [They] were putting the shows together, starting record labels. So I never thought of this as a place for inequity. It seemed like a place where you could be yourself, and you were going to belong. And being yourself did not mean conforming to the rest of everybody else. I did find that it was influenced by the punk and hardcore and post-hardcore scenes so much that those rock ’n’ roll clichés were thought of as just that — clichés. A lot of people pick up guitars to meet girls. Probably everybody that does wants to hide behind it a little bit, but also it’s an invitation: “Come talk to me about this thing I do. I’m not comfortable coming to talk to you myself. But look I’ve got this thing around me, you can ask me about it.” [Laughs]
So I would say that I’ve always trusted that it was a place for trust. And just like in the real world, that can be taken advantage of, and has been. I can only speak to my corner of that music scene. I feel like it remains a safe place, but the onus is on all of us to safeguard it. To keep it that way.
How do you grapple with the knowledge that that trust has been tampered with? How do you square with [something like the sexual misconduct allegations against Jesse Lacey, frontman of former Dashboard tourmate Brand New] as a person and as a member of the scene?
I feel more a part of a scene than a shepherd of it. I’ve said it before and I’ll be straight with you: I’m just really kind of shocked. When I was a kid, before I had a band and I was just part of the scene, I never saw this kind of behavior. Or heard about it within those walls, within that community. So it never once occurred to me that it was something that needed to be addressed.
I know that that’s naive, but it’s not borne out of inexperience. It was just the experience that I had. It wasn’t like this big, open secret. The kids that were just a couple years older really helped define how we were going to behave in the scene, and then hopefully we designed that for the people that came up after us and left it to them to carry it forward to the people after them. And I’m still part of the scene. I feel like we were taught to respect each other; I think that was the biggest cornerstone of the scene.
So I look at all this, just from my own personal experience, as a horrifying anomaly. I think it’s all of our jobs everywhere to right the ship.
Is there anything about Dashboard that you feel you don’t get to talk about often enough?
I think that this band has rewarded me with lasting friendships and the kind of friendships that I wish everybody could have. I guess eventually, everybody’s friends are just their work friends, right? Along the timeline, maybe that’s what you’re left with. But the music and skate culture that I come from has been so personally rewarding for me with friendships and connections that have lasted so many years and continue to last. And I would say that if that would be the only thing I’d ever gotten from Dashboard, it’d have been more than enough. And I’ve done so much more than that.