Posted May 21, 2015 by Jeff in Tunes

Dashboard Confessional: Lighting it up again

Dashboard Confessional
Dashboard Confessional

Thanks to some great exposure on MTV, Dashboard Confessional was a hugely popular alternative band of the 2000s even selling out Madison Square Garden on its last full band tour. Now, the group has reunited for a summer tour that pairs it with Third Eye Blind. Singer-guitarist Chris Carrabba spoke to us via phone from his Nashville home.

Talk about recently playing a birthday party for Taylor Swift’s best friend.
It’s fun to play music with my friends. It’s like going to an incredible party for a really great person. This happened to be hosted by our friend who happens to be incredibly famous.

How long have you been in Nashville?
Off and on a few years but now permanently for almost a year. I like it very much. I could list musicians that I know from every scene that isn’t country who live within a stone’s throw from me, but that would fill up your whole article. But I do love country music too.

Country has so much crossover with pop.
There’s a lot of crossover but for me there was already an influence on my music from older country music. I’m guessing that most songwriters who are storytellers take an influence. Once it was cool and then it was uncool. Whether it’s cool at the time or not, they’d tell you they were influenced by country musicians.

How could you not be influenced by lyricists like Kris Kristofferson or Steve Earle?

And Willie Nelson.
Especially Willie Nelson. Willie Nelson is a phenomenal talent. There’s little difference in terms of lyrical prowess and melody and all that [between his work and] what Paul Simon and Tom Petty and Bob Dylan have to offer. He’s just as masterful.

Take us back to the band’s beginning. How exactly did Dashboard grow out of Further Seems Forever?
It was concurrent. I was in Further. I had these songs and made these demos and I would show them to the Further guys. They weren’t too interested in those songs, which isn’t to say they weren’t interested in my songs. They just didn’t feel like Further songs. I had this growing pile. I was doing this on this terrible acoustic guitar I had, which is why I shake down open tunings because they would stay. As far as I can recall, Further had some studio time to work on a full-length and the schedule changed. It left that producer with a hole on the weekend. I had these songs. I had recorded them onto a cassette in an order that I thought would sound good on a record.  I brought them to his apartment. We gave ourselves a night or maybe two. He was generous with his time. The only big rub was that there was a gap of certitude that I should be recording these songs. I was in a band.

So what convinced you to record them?
It was Amy Fleisher who ran Fiddler Records who said, “You have to record this.” I had a handful of champions I was brave enough to play them for. I thought if they were impressed, then there’s something to this. I wasn’t comfortable doing it and my big excuse was that I didn’t have a guitar to properly record an album with. Amy said, “Fuck this. I’m going to get you a guitar.” She went out and bought a $200 guitar. That was huge. When you talk about putting money where your mouth is, that’s it. If it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t have set foot in a studio. I went in and made a record. I didn’t think about it much. I wasn’t going to release it. It was just a great exercise in confidence-building. There was this moment born out of anonymity and inauspicious nature. When no one is going to hear it, you say things that might be censored from other bandmates. Amy wanted to put the record out and the Further guys were encouraging me. They thought it was really good. They talked me into putting it out on Amy’s label. Further had an EP out and were working on a full-length.

So you put out the Dashboard album and thought you’d stay in Further?
Somehow people had been making cassette copies and burning CDs at home. Amy pressed the CD and I went to a show with them in my van. It wasn’t my show or Further’s show. I don’t know whose show it was. Anyway, they asked if I was that kid from Dashboard. I said, “I guess so.” They wanted to buy the record. They had it but they wanted the actual CD and I sold 200 out of my van. We played a festival and went to a tent where Pedro the Lion was playing an acoustic set. He handed me a guitar and it was my first show. My friends knew before I knew. I made a decision to leave Further. I wasn’t the only one making that decision, but I made it first. In the interim, the band would go on with two other singers and several other guitar players and be fantastic and have a great career. I got to be a part of that and I’ve been on the edge of it and I feel great about it. We made another record after that. There was all this great intrigue surrounding the beginning of Dashboard. There was my own intrigue. I didn’t know how the hell people knew it existed. Then, it gets big enough. It was not an overnight success but what happened was the sing-a-longs. They say it takes years to become an overnight success and it really did. I was selling CDs out of my trunk before we got in the magazines. By the time we got in those magazines, there was this euphoric feeling. They build you up and knock you down. I discovered that by being at a barbeque with the Further guys. I read this glowing piece about Dashboard and Further and then another piece about how we hated each other. I didn’t know that the truth was myself after I read that. What are you going to do? You just sit there with your friends and laugh about it.

Dashboard Confessional’s third album, A Mark, a Mission, a Brand, a Scar, really connected with fans. Why was it such a hit?
I think we made some good choices. The expectation from some people of power and position that I respected was to make a radio-friendly record. They wanted a sonic template. They wanted to go down a road that was a homerun . . . a singer-songwriter kind of road. I knew that in the scene I had come out of, when you put a band around a songwriter, it doesn’t sound like that. It sounded raw. I knew the scene I came from and I wanted to honor that. We made a decision to go with Gil Norton who had made these great Pixies records and had made The Colour and the Shape with the Foo Fighters. He also made Recovering the Satellites for the Counting Crows. That was special for me. I loved the Pixies, and Foo Fighters blew everybody’s doors off. Here was the Counting Crows following up their gazillion-selling perfect record. I’m in awe of their first album. They made this record with Gil Norton and it had these teeth to it. I knew this was the guy who could take a band like mine and make sure not to let the teeth get worn away. I think he recognized the importance of that. One of the other things that was a good decision was that we did it fast and dirty. We did it in a terrible studio. I had wished it was a little better but I’m happy it wasn’t. We had the songs written and some of the pieces seemed like they should have been on a different record than the other ones. I thought that variety would make it special. Between my second full-length and my third full-length, we made a whole bunch of EPs and I experimented with happiness on one of them. Not to say that I didn’t do that at all on the other ones, but this was open and honest happiness right on the face of it. There was just enough juxtaposition between those two things that it connected with people. There wasn’t pitch correction and things like that. But who knows if we did use those things and I don’t know about it? Who knows what work they did on it? A lot of the takes are live. There are two that are just demos in my laundry room.

So what was the key?
There have to be enough people who believe in what you do. And a lot of things had to fall into place. We got away with it. In the time between 2000 and 2010, we made six records. We made countless EPs and countless mixtapes covers records. We also toured like machines. We were on the road like 300 days of the year and playing 285 dates for the first five years. Some of them were multiple shows in one day. There was a time limit and we didn’t want to run out. We wanted to get every piece of personal memory we could. We wanted to be there and it was simple as that.

Why did the band break up?
At the end of 10 years, we made the record Alter the Ending. It was our best reviewed record and it came out right as the economy collapsed. There were these stressors about whether people would buy tickets to shows and all this stuff. The heaviness was so strange. A burden started to set in. There was an honest to goodness backlash. I wasn’t driven away by that. We weren’t driven into some kind of early retirement by that but we were aware of it. It’s a strange feeling I had. I was a bit of a wallflower in school. I was a nerdy, skater musician. In all my nieces’ Disney TV shows, musicians and skateboarders are the most popular. That’s not how it was for me. I learned to play guitar and be in these bands so I could fit in. And then there was this backlash. That’s when I thought this was tiresome. There was this world of snark that was brewing. That’s the beginning of what we call the trolls on the internet. In the face of that, the shows were glorious. Huge crowds with smiling faces and huge, open hearts. At one point, there was a tour that ended and it was great. I remember looking around and wondering whether we should make another record. “Does anybody feel like the record would be better if we stepped away for a minute?” The answer unilaterally was “yes.” We didn’t intend to walk away for so long.

There was a definite decision to come back but there was not a decision to stop. We leaned too far back in our chairs and then realized there was a world out there.

Are you prepared for the tour?
We’re on fire. It’s better than it’s ever been. There’s some new energy but I also think, “How are these songs new for me?” I can play things now that I couldn’t play then. There’s this whole fiery thing. When we got in a room together it didn’t take but an hour for it to light up. I don’t know what we’ll do when it comes to the shows, but it wasn’t loud enough. We brought it in more amps. I’ve been playing acoustically but as soon as there was heavy drums and this remarkable thing called distortion the only request I had was for more.




Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at jeff@whopperjaw.net.