The 2000s, on the heels of the '90s grunge whine, saw an influx of bands that were so in touch with their emotions that they got their own genre name: emo. They were known for being raw, expressive and earnest in their heartache. Arguably one of the pioneers of the genre was Dashboard Confessional, a band that retired from the concert scene about six years ago after the release of their sixth studio album Alter The Ending. All the world had seen of Dashboard since was a solo tour by singer Chris Carrabba in 2010 to celebrate the ten year anniversary of their first album The Swiss Army Romance. Since then, Carrabba had spent time on a new Americana/country project called Twin Forks, with which he toured extensively. It seemed that Dashboard Confessional was going to sink into the history of emotionally charged teenage rock and gracefully go quiet for newer sounds.
That all changed this year, however, when Dashboard came out of hiding and jumped on tour with Third Eye Blind, known most widely for their own nostalgia-instilling hits from the '90s. Singer Chris Carrabba sat down for a chat with The Reader to talk about then, now, and what he's feeling about it all.
Reader: To start out, the term “emo” and its evolution and application. I know you've said you have no problem with Dashboard [Confessional] being called emo, but what are your thoughts on it then and now?
Carrabba: You know, I don't know what it meant then, I don't know what it means now, I know what it means to me, specifically. There was a period that it was a misnomer, I thought it was an appropriated term that predated our scene. In that regard, I felt a little odd being called that. I'm talking about bands like Sunny Day Real Estate, Mineral, bands like that who predate our band's existence, “our” meaning the bands that all got lumped into being e-m-o. But, you know, I think it seems just as appropriate as anything else for a sub-genre of rock and roll, which is all this is, just rock 'n' roll. There was a period where it made no sense to me at all where the bands that were under that umbrella that didn't sound at all like each other. I mean, there were really huge bands that I think did carry that mantel on—specifically, I don't know if they were comfortable with this term but this is what I thought of them as, Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance. In my mind, they were the biggest, most successful bands in that genre. For a while, I was like “I don't sound like that, though I wish I did.” I don't sound like what I sounded like when they were calling me emo so I think I can say we're a singer-songwriter band. For a while, I was like “no, I don't think we are like that” but now I've realized we always were, and we always were that—whatever THAT is. I guess my point is I don't know what people think that is, but I'm fine with thinking we're that.
Reader: I think it originated from the word “emotional” and a term for anybody who writes emotional things emotionally?
Carrabba: I know, and I guess that was my problem with it. I listen to a lot of genres from hip-hip to folk music to arena rock and I find that's true in all of those things. I think the idea is it's the smaller intricacies and moments of those feelings maybe being what we mined that made it different. And I don't want to keep harping on Fall Out Boy but they have found a way to hold on to that while consistently being one of the biggest bands in America. It's pretty incredible. I don't know why they're on my mind; I guess because they're what I decided to listen to today.
Reader: They too kind of went through a hiatus and came out on top, jumping right back where they were so in that way it's not that far-fetched to think of them in connection to Dashboard Confessional.
Carrabba: Well, they were always successful on the radio, and we never had success on the radio. The kind of music I play is a little further left, and they're already left but they're about as far left as you can go and still be on the radio but we're a little further left than that. [laughs]
Reader: So, there's a lot of talk about this tour being a nostalgic one for people, after not hearing anything from you guys in so long. Do you see your band as a kind of icon of the 2000s, does it feel nostalgic to you?
Carrabba: I don't, no. I definitely don't see myself as an icon or as this about nostalgia and let me tell you why. This is a co-headlining tour with Third Eye Blind, and I would think that they would be a nostalgia act. But I'm watching their fans and their range of audience is too broad to be nostalgia. It's current. That's the beauty of songs is that you live in the moment whenever you discover them. Is there a portion of the people there that are nostalgic while going? I mean, I just...I don't know. Do you go to shows for nostalgia? I might listen to records for nostalgia...I go to a show to experience the now and maybe the hint of the future. [pause] Can you-can you hold on? I need to get this coffee. [He goes away from the phone for a minute.] I've been watching it brew, like waiting for a girl to get off a train. [laughs] I don't know where we were but coffee will help the next question.
Reader: It's fine. [laughs] So, when you made the decision to take time off from the road and step back from Dashboard, were you scared you wouldn't be able to come back? How does it feel, coming back now? I know people have asked you in the past to come back and it never felt like the right time. Why now?
Carrabba: Let me explain a little bit about that. I think that when you have a career that is built by an audience, not by a song, specifically built out of this honest relationship you have where you give your guarantee, like “I'm going to come with this, you'll never see me phone it in, you'll never see me fake my way through it,” if you don't honor that you only get one chance to mess it up before it's all demystified, it's all gone. That doesn't mean you don't have a show where you're sick or your voice is hoarse, I'm talking about where we were when we were overworked. I knew in my heart that if we did even one tour like that in front of people, even at the height of our success... [His voice drops, sincere and sad.] ...that they would know. They would know and it wouldn't be fair to them and it would be gone. I was willing to risk walking away at the height of my career versus having anybody walk away from us because we went back on our tour.
I personally didn't stop touring though, that's the thing. What I needed was to go back to small clubs. I started a band called Twin Forks, I bought a van, I toured for a hundred and fifty days a year or more. I played the sweatiest rooms I could find, as many shows as I could do, for, you know, three years with Twin Forks now. No glamor, no pretense, all heart, no expectation. I needed that to be rekindled, to be able to come out and do that show at Riotfest [in Chicago] as a reunion—though we never broke up so it's hard to call it a reunion, we talked every day. But, you know, we stepped away. We did that Riotfest and it was instantaneous—we were all there, we were all ready, we were all in.
Reader: So how do you think you've changed as a musician and a singer in this time?
Carrabba: Well, I'm a better musician than I ever was. I work very very hard to be a good musician. But also, hearing my speaking voice, I just feel it—I can't help but want to scream at the top of my lungs. I just have this ferocious feeling that I need to let it out, let that mood be bigger, meaner, funner, happier, madder, all at once. As a musician I've become far and away a better musician. People began to see me as a good guitar player when I started Twin Forks. Before, people thought I was just a rhythm guitarist. That's really what my purpose was in Dashboard, but in Twin Forks I also play all the licks and leads and stuff. That's kind of fun, to be able to play the things that before only John [Lefler] was able to play. You know, John's only doing the west coast for the tour, so maybe A.J. [Cheek] will maybe play a new part over that. So the songs will have a slightly different personality, growth of musicianship. It's not like we're saying, you know, “now we know what we're going to be, we're going to be, I don't know, stoner rock” or something. We're building on what we have and present it. We're always looking for urgency and invitation, like every section should be an invitation to draw you in closer.
Reader: Was there ever a moment that you realized this was what you wanted to do for a living? What inspired you to start playing music or singing?
Carrabba: Oh, I thought that this would be a great thing to do for an obsessive hobby. I never thought it was possible or plausible to make a living. So when it became what I was doing for a living, I thought “oh, this will never last.” It wasn't really about living then so much as the experience. That's why I played 300 shows a year, because I thought “this will be gone and I won't get to do any shows anymore and I'll wish I'd said yes to number 300 instead of just 299.” I'm still shocked that this is my livelihood. It's like... [He struggles for a few seconds to figure out the right word.] It's a blessing, like winning the lottery, like...it's magical. It's kind of miraculous. Especially considering we don't have hits on the radio. I get more with Twin Forks than I do with Dashboard, it's incredible. I think “how the hell do we still have a career?” People that cared in the beginning are still there and people are still discovering us. It's a mixture of the original audience plus their younger versions that have just discovered it or were too young to come to a show the first time around. It's amazing to glance out and see.
Reader: So what can the audience expect? What are you trying to bring this time around?
Carrabba: I think this is something that I am really comfortable saying, it's something everybody knows if they have ever seen it. Yes we have sad songs, but they are filled with hope. Yes we have happy songs, but they are so anthemic that there is this crazy urgency about them. The point I'm making is that I don't think you'll ever see a dopier grin on a singer over the course of a show. It's—how do I explain this? I'm such a fan of the audience that I don't know who wins out more: fans of the band or me, as a fan of the audience with my big dopey grin. I just can't believe they're all there, that we're all still here together. It's an exercise for me in euphoria. I guess that's what I expect.
Reader: Is there anything that you would like to add?
Carrabba: Man, I don't even know. I just love Omaha. The way that that music scene is cultivated...I'm envious that I don't get to live in such an artful community that are proving their own creativity in the absence of being the major market for anything—except for college sports anyway. It just has such a homespun, real life, heartfelt community. I love it.
Dashboard Confessional will be playing with Third Eye Blind at Sumtur Amphitheater in Papillion on June 30. The show starts at 7 and you can get tickets from Ticketmaster for $35-90.