“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 it,” Chris Carrabba says, staring at the midtown high-rises through a window inside Warner Music’s New York City fices, 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 two hours, Carrabba took stock 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 f, 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 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 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 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 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 the West Coast version Fueled by Ramen. They worked together on a lot projects. There was a camp 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 mine went there – Jimmy Eat World, All American Rejects, AFI. I thought, Okay, this is looking good for me. It’s another version 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 f 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 my life so far.
So you pitched them an already-completed album?
Yeah, pretty much.
Wow, that’s a bold approach.
Well, sort . I came with what could have been several different records because I had 60 songs. Mike Easterlin, who is the head 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 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 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.
I signed for Jimmy Iovine’s legacy 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 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 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 a big company. And so many 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 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 the new Fall Out Boy album. It appears that the majors haven’t figured out how to get both fans a new generation and 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 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 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 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 success, though. That was a success story every measure.
And yet even they bowed out.
Which is interesting to me because 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 what the outside world defined our scene as. They rose out beyond the confines 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 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 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 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 fstage 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 people a day. All this infused me with that sense that I had in the beginning, that I’m just a part something. I think people think, “Oh, he’s the guy that does it. We just follow.” No way. I get to be a part this with everybody else.
You do these shows and have this vote confidence to come back, but it’s also been almost a decade since your last album. In that time f, emo has come back in a big, almost unrecognizable way. Do you ever feel like a fish out 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 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 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 bands that nobody’s ever heard , 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 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 affairs the rest 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 that style 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 your life still. My relationship with my fans continues. There’s an influx these new exciting bands that are doing something