Frontman Chris Carrabba gives an inside look into writing Alter the Ending, what his newest album means to him, dealing with Catholic guilt, and how his perspective on songwriting has changed over the years.
So I was pretty bummed that the tour ended up getting canceled.
Yeah well, I’m probably more bummed than you are.
Yeah, I can imagine.
We’ve pushed it back, but we will be there. If you can be patient, I can be patient. It just kind of frankly sucks.
I know you were doing that split with New Found Glory. Is that still going to come out at some point?
Yes, that was too fun to leave for later. I don’t want to say too much, but we’re trying to rectify all things, and rectify them quickly.
You’ve been working on this album for what seems like quite a while, and I think it was originally supposed to come out at the end of last year. What was the process like to finish this one?
We recorded in stages, and each stage seemed like it was going to be the first and last. Well, I suppose only the first one felt like it was going to be the first and the last, but we always felt like we were going in to complete the record. It seemed as if one song tied the whole thing together, so every time I would start to feel like I just needed one thing to finish it. We would go into record but I didn’t quite know what the one thing was, so I would have to record a few songs to find the ending of the record, to find the culminating piece.
I don’t want to overstate the importance of the song. It’s not like I was looking for “Stairway to Heaven.” I wasn’t looking for the smash of the year. I was just looking for the piece of the puzzle that would unify it, but because I didn’t know what that one piece was, I was putting more into that every time and then shuffling the pieces again, shuffling the deck again, I guess. These newer songs, plus these older songs. It was just a pursuit of an album that felt complete to me, and I believe we got there because I feel very satisfied.
When I listen to it as a record, I feel satisfied, and it’s an intangible thing. When I would listen back before, I could tell you, to be frank, that all the songs were great and I was really proud of them. I don’t know what it was that made me feel like it was incomplete. As soon as I had the right songs together, it just felt right.
Did you record the electric side first and then the acoustic versions later, or did you do them at the same time?
No, the album was complete. It was done. We were excited about it and happy with it. We were sitting around talking about what you and I were just talking about, how the chase for the end of the song was this long and windy road in retrospect. It felt like immediate hindsight as soon as we were finished. It was so obvious to us. Oh, obviously that was the piece we needed, or those were the things, but when you’re on the hunt, it’s not as clear as that.
We were talking about the spirit with which we had each session, and how there was excitement about it. When we were finished we thought the record sounded great, but the feeling that we had when we thought about the different recording sessions was disparate. We thought, “Let’s just play the songs. We haven’t really done that before.”
So we were hanging around, and we played all the songs that we had decided were going to make the record with acoustic guitars all the way through. We said, “Let’s play this like it’s a record.” There was a spark there, and we thought, “Oh, wouldn’t it be fun to capture it this way?”
Without spending too much time on it, we set up guitars and recorded it that way. It wasn’t until later, when word got around that we had done this, that the people at the label were like, “You know, we want that [laughs]. We think people would want that.” We liked it, so we didn’t hesitate at all. We were like, “Great. That’s tremendous.”
You don’t get an opportunity to showcase the different polar ends of what a song is like that all the time. Sometimes you’ll hear a couple years later a band will do an acoustic performance of a whole record, and it really gets exciting because you can understand the songs in a completely different context. We got to do that and delivered both those things at once, but that’s overstating it. We were just doing it for fun.
Do you still start out writing on acoustic?
You know, I have different methods of writing and they don’t hold true necessarily from one whole record to the next. This time, though, yeah. I essentially for the first three quarters of this record just wrote on an acoustic guitar.
Usually, I recorded the demo for it within hours of having finished it, and tried my best to resist the temptation to really listen to it, or play it for that matter. When I emailed the tracks to my bandmates, I explained that I was doing that and if they would consider doing that too, so when we got into the session we all would be reacting to it like it was almost brand new. That served us well.
There were a few cases where you get bitten by the creativity bug while you’re at the demo stage, and you find yourself sitting behind a drum kit knowing full well your drummer’s going to kill your drumbeat [laughs] when it comes time to record, but that’s not really what it’s about that day. It’s just about having fun and making music, and before you know it, you have a fully realized demo.
That can be dangerous a little bit because now everybody’s trying to emulate what you did that day. Maybe there was a charm in your heart and your limited skillset – I’m speaking about drums – that makes it harder for someone to recapture. Although it’s cool and you might find something charming, and maybe it is what makes the song have that extra spark, it’s a little tricky I’ve found, using that as an example.
So, I tried to limit myself from doing that. I’d say maybe the rest of the quarter of the time did I do full fleshed out demos. I know I did it on “Belle of the Boulevard,” and I did it on “Alter the Ending” and “Until Morning.” Other than that, I think I just left it as bare as possible.
When it comes to lyrics, what would you say this album in a nutshell is talking about and means to you?
That’s tough because I’m not sure I’ve had enough time to live with it to give you an answer that will stand the test of time, but I’ll do my best to tell you what I think of it now. I was struggling with a few different things in my own writer’s block in the beginning. Where that led me was to be introspective. I had a great faith in my belief that songs could write themselves, and was really jarred when I started writing the record and nothing came.
That was very weird for me but it helped me get to where I was thinking about those things you hold dear, and whether they’re actually there or you just expect them to be there. So that was one of the themes for the record. How it displayed itself was either in terms of relationships, or faith, or lack of faith, or belief in yourself, or belief in others or what it should be. Stuff like that.
One of the things I noticed, as you were saying, was you touched a little bit more on that faith aspect, which you’ve done to varying degrees over the years. What led you to that?
It’s a slippery slope when you start writing about those things because people project what they feel and what they want you to feel about that onto the songwriting. So whenever I do it I feel some trepidation, which is not useful to writing a song. You need to be full of unanimity when you write a song.
I can talk to you specifically about “Get Me Right,” which was a time changer for me in terms of making this record. I had written so many demos before I began the real record. When I wrote “Get Me Right,” it was genuine and there was a feeling that I had tapped into something I hadn’t inspected much before, and I decided to toss out the rest of the demos.
For me, I was raised Catholic, and then I’ve been either a Catholic or a lapsed Catholic for my entire life. It’s this pendulum that swings back and forth. The guilt never leaves, no matter what, as far as being Catholic goes. That was a catalyst for writing some of the record.
That kind of goes along with my favorite song you’ve ever written, “End of an Anchor,” where you talk more about that.
You know, I’ve got to thank you right now for that because that’s my favorite song I’ve ever written and not everybody figured out as you did what it means to me. It sounds like you’re the way I am and how I heard it, too.
I hope you’re able to play that on tours and stuff at some point.
I was actually writing it down on this set list I was doodling with right now before. So congratulations, I needed that. I wasn’t sure about adding it, but that’s something I’m going to write down right now.
So obviously you’ve been doing this Dashboard thing for a number of years now. How would you say you’ve changed as a songwriter during that time?
The other day I went and I listened back to all of the records, which I’m sure you wouldn’t be surprised to know that bands don’t really listen to their own records the way people listen to records. I listen to them when they first come, and then I put them on a high shelf and I don’t go back to them for a long, long time.
But I was listening back, and there is an urgency that I hear on those early songs that I feel like was a great thing. I was nervous I would lose that urgency over the years because of the youthful thing. I was afraid I would lose that as my actual songwriting skillset.
So what I found as I listened to the record was there’s a developing that just gets better. At some points it was there, and too concentrated in the early days, and then later was too diluted. Maybe on the last couple records it’s found the right mixture, the right middle ground.
There’s things that I listen to with a hint of embarrassment, although I’m still proud of them. For one, some of these songs were recorded before my voice was finished changing, so that’s a little tough to deal with, but that’s also kind of charming. You listen to it and think, “Wow, I was heading somewhere, that young man.”
That’s as far as I can take it. I leave it to you and others like you to make that call on what the art really was. I’m too close to it to really know for sure.
Originally appeared on Mammoth Press