If you say it’s impossible for emo to age gracefully, Dashboard Confessional’s Chris Carrabba might agree with you. To Carrabba, it seems that the music, the scene and the generation he spoke for is about the preservation of vulnerability — and that’s neither outdated nor graceful.
In the early 2000s, Carrabba was the poster boy for strummy, heart-on-sleeve scream-alongs, the gateway placebo for the mainstream embrace of pop punk, the symbol of millennials’ tenderest adolescent pangs. But Dashboard Confessional hasn’t released new music in nine years, which seemed to indicate that Carrabba was moving in a different direction. This would be a natural progression for a 42-year-old artist to deliberately distance himself from the youth-specific genre to which he’s been tethered for two decades.
But now Dashboard Confessional has returned with Crooked Shadows, and the long absence turns out to be evidence of Carrabba’s steadfastness to “the scene.” He was waiting, as a song on the record puts it, for “just what to say.” The album’s first single, “We Fight,” follows a tried-and-true Dashboard cathartic movement; the verse whispers gently, “We were the kids that left home probably too young,” before the chorus launches into a ragged high-pitched rally cry: “’Cause we never learned to keep our voices down/No, we only learned to shout.” Here Carrabba lays out his concerns: how to honor the ethos of a younger self that persists and the fans who originally bonded over Dashboard’s music — while providing the production value of adult-contemporary.
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Westword spoke to Carrabba on the phone just a few days before he set off on tour from Nashville. He asked the first question: Had we heard Wildermiss? Carrabba proceeded to gush about the Denver pop-rock band, saying he’d replayed grainy YouTube clips of their music until 93.3 DJ Nerf sent him a quality clip. “If he had sent it to me a day earlier…” Carrabba said, he would have asked Wildermiss on tour.
Westword: What can folks expect to hear on this tour in terms of set list?
Chris Carrabba: We’ve never been a band that wants to go out and hammer people over the head with our new songs. After all, you embrace a band for the records you initially connected with. The new album is only 28 minutes long, and our show is two hours long, so...I don’t want to leave our old songs in the dust. I only write down what we played last night, and I play whatever comes to mind during the set. My poor bandmates have to react. I don’t think I even give a cue. I go to start playing something, or someone will yell something out, and partially due to my learning disability, and partially because I want to be very present in the moment, I’ll go with it.
We want big clubs to feel like small clubs. It’ll be a nice return to play bigger theaters [on this tour]. We don’t want to leave people out, and we want it to be hot and sweaty.
You wrote a ton of songs before putting this album together. Where did the rest of the songs go?
Some of [the songs] are excellent, some of them are good, and some of them are bad — just plain dogs. They didn’t make the cut for reasons that, if you told me to re-sequence the album today, I would do it differently. … I had to surrender to the need for help. The label was very helpful in honing it.
The goal initially was that my first two records were short, and the approach was in my mind if there was a rulebook: that this album would be from that same guy writing the songs in the spirit of the same place as the first two records — but with different life experiences, of course, and with the musical skills I have now.
I’d still want to have an arc that made you feel not overly satisfied but that left you needing a little bit more. It’s a good commute record and workout record, a ride-with-your-special-someone record. It can be its own activity.
What do you listen to while you work out or when you’re driving somewhere?
For working out, I’ve been listening to Culture Abuse a lot. For driving, I’ve been listening to Future Islands, Sidney Gish, Phoebe Bridgers. I can’t tell you whether Phoebe’s audience embraces my music, but my audience embraces her. There are a few people out there who I think, "Why didn’t I get to write that? That lyrical combination has been staring me in the face." What could be a trivial throwaway line is so powerful. [Another example is] that Dawes line, “May all your favorite bands stay together.” Is there a more romantic sentiment than that?!
What did you feel delayed you from writing Dashboard songs? And how did the decision to start again come about?
My thinking is all a bit scattershot. There’s a lyric on my record, [on] "Just What to Say" — a true, factual thing: “Every day I take a white page and try very hard to know just what to say.” ... I had to wait. I could’ve said a lot of things. I know how to write a song that sounds like a Dashboard song, but I wanted to know just what to say without it being overwrought. [Now] I’m not as liberal with using metaphor that’s obvious as metaphor; I try to make it feel conversational, and sometimes it’s conversational between the subjects and between singer and audience, and sometimes it’s an inner monologue.
I outwaited the people who were waiting for [the album]. Then I was free to wait. I wouldn’t fake it. My accountant didn’t love the decision to take eight years off, and I had to find ways to manage. It would’ve been easier to rush to the marketplace. But fuck it.
I went to Dashboard shows when I was fourteen and fifteen, and I’m now 31. How did you feel about making music that felt age-specific and performing for a group of people who were often at a vulnerable, formative age?
I was there too. I can’t write about the moment I’m in. I was retroactively exploring things that people who were listening [were experiencing] — and it was an eye-opener to realize it wasn’t just me. I felt like there was a safe place now. It really mirrored my circle of friends, and it broadened from my ten pals to thousands of people. We connected through the weird invitation of these songs.
In 2011, you did an anniversary tour for The Swiss Army Romance, and the album anniversary tour has become a common event for bands of the emo era. What was that experience like for you?
It hadn’t occurred to me to do an anniversary tour. It was the diehards on message boards who called for it as a foregone conclusion. At the time, we were doing arenas, so [when we did the anniversary tour], we went back to basement shows. Tried to invert the celebration, reframing it with the original places the album fit into.
Has nostalgia ever been an obstacle between Dashboard Confessional and its fans?
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I am pretty sure that the band and the fans live in the now!
Do you see any correlation between emo’s professed commitment to vulnerable community and the creation of safe spaces, which drew many young fans to the scene, and the activism practiced/beliefs held by those fans as adults? In other words, who did emo kids grow up to be?
By and large, the kids from the scene we came up in continues to be the scene we remain in. It wasn’t a place we left. We changed with it, and it changed with us.
Dashboard Confessional, Monday, April 9, Summit Music Hall, 1902 Blake Street, $33.60-$38.