When Dashboard Confessional reemerged from a four-year hiatus in 2015, frontman Chris Carrabba was in the process of reevaluating his musical catalogue. Perhaps inspired by the country folk music made in the interim with Twin Forks, he came to the conclusion he liked his older material the best, up through 2003’s A Mark, a Mission, a Brand, a Scar. That album in retrospect positioned him at a career crossroads, and in this second iteration of the band, he now has the chance to pursue the path he wishes he had taken then.
To get the fullest picture of Carrabba, though, one must go back to his time spent growing up in South Florida. He moved there at the age of 16 in the early ‘90s from Connecticut and immediately was entranced by the close-knit, anything goes community, a place where singer-songwriters, hardcore, punk and ska all shared the same bill. “The fans were in bands and the bands were fans,” he recalls. “There was glorious disorganization.”
While finishing up college and working as a special education teacher at a local elementary school (so he could tour summers), he was in no less than four bands at a time. His goal, simply, was “if I was lucky enough to be asked to be in a band, I wanted to be the hardest working guy in the band.” The effort paid off, and he would eventually be recruited to sing in indie rock favorite Further Seems Forever. Following the band’s 2001 debut, Carrabba left to focus on his solo project full time, Dashboard Confessional. The rest, as they say, is history.
As he prepares to tour this summer with the All-American Rejects, the 42-year-old has never forgotten the magic of those early Florida years. He remains close to many of the musicians he came up with and is eager to discuss what made their time together so special. “Personally, it defined me in a way that continues to define me,” he puts it.
Below, Carrabba speaks to Behind the Setlist about the Florida scene and more, including the latest with Twin Forks and his thoughts on present-day Dashboard. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I caught you at the Troubadour not that long ago. Is it nice to be back in Twin Forks mode?
Yeah, that was one of my favorite shows of that tour. That’s a passion project for all of us that are in that band. The camaraderie within the band is unique. The opportunity to do that band is less frequent, so we really cherish when we get to do it.
You played about a half dozen or so new songs. What’s the progress of that new material?
It’s pretty far along. But as is the case with making records, you stumble upon a song late in the record-making process that changes the tenor of the record and then you have to chase that for a bit. That’s where we’re at now.
Something I noticed, and I think it only happened once, was someone did call out about Dashboard probably thinking they were funny, which you were able to make a little joke about. That’s probably something you’ve encountered a lot over your career. How do approach dealing with something like that and has it become less frequent the longer you’ve been around?
Yeah, it’s become less frequent. As a matter of fact, it only happened twice on the whole tour, that anybody called out a Dashboard song or said “Dashboard.” That, of course, wasn’t the case for the first year or two when we were doing Twin Forks, but then again I was also not doing Dashboard at that time. That was their only chance to possibly hear a Dashboard song.
I handle it differently depending on the day and the crowd and what have you. If it’s a Dashboard show and people call out a Twin Forks song, most of the time I won’t play it, but sometimes I will. And if it’s a Twin Forks show, the same is true if they call out a Dashboard song. Most of the time I won’t play it, but sometimes I will.
“Looking back on it now, I can see clearly that I would have liked to go down that other fork. The thing is I think I get to.”
The big thing you’ve got coming up this summer is the tour with All-American Rejects. I was able to catch Dashboard on your last two summer tours, with Third Eye Blind a couple years ago and Taking Back Sunday last year. What are you hoping to do differently on this run?
You grow as a band every year and the songs evolve, so you don’t have to worry. You trust that the set will be different enough because you’ve had another year to grow as a player, as a band. The thing we think about more is the unique makeup of the compiling of bands, what’s different about them each year. How do you go up there and make that translate throughout the course of the show, from the opener to the closer?
Last summer we were excited because it was all friends. It was so special, and that was our number one goal. This year it was, “Who cares how many tickets anybody sells?” The new bar for us is, “How great a memory are we making for ourselves and for the audience?” There’s a small number of bands, well, probably more than you’d expect, that we’re close with. We’re lucky they want to tour with us, too. That’s what we’re heading out to do.
Do you have any plans to test out new songs?
The last Dashboard record was in 2009, so about eight years ago. You’ve always had trouble starting records in the past and it seems like this one might be more difficult than most. What’s it been like to revisit the Dashboard name and sound when you’re coming up with new material? What’s the status on the album at this point?
So Jonathan, I had to go back and look at the records all together and formulate my own opinion on what the band is. I came up with the truest answer I could, which is I like my old shit better, so up to and including A Mark, a Mission. The songs after that, I don’t know if they are sonically related, but there’s this certain feeling that felt like those records are the ones that resonate with me still and continue to.
It wasn’t obvious to me that after A Mark, a Mission, when it was time to record a new record, I was looking at two different roads to take, and I was going to take one and head off on it. I thought there was just one road. Looking back on it now, I can see clearly that I would have liked to go down that other fork. The thing is I think I get to.
The thing about songwriting, and it’s probably true about any writing, is it’s the best when it’s not an assignment, when it just spills out. It’s more about knowing what that feeling is that made me react to the songs I like from my catalogue best, and knowing when I’m in that place again and sticking with it.
I’m probably one of the few in the minority that actually likes a lot of your later stuff better. My favorite record is Alter the Ending, and I thought The Shade of Poison Trees was a really cool record, too. Is that just the time in your life that you don’t connect to as much anymore? Why do you think you’ve gone back to your older material more now?
I don’t know. I made the records that were right at the time when I made them for me. I made the best records I could possibly make. Thank you for liking those last two that I made. I certainly liked them at the time, and I still like them. It’s hard for me to articulate. It’d be more anomalous, but I could tell you these are the songs off of that record that I like. I can’t tell you why, but they are the ones I like. It probably would be obvious to you that they are in some fashion related to my earlier work. And I don’t know why. I really don’t.
I just know that every time you make a record, you’ve got to make the best record for where you are and what your tastes are at that time. Maybe it boils down to that’s where I’m at now and that’s what my tastes are. Maybe two years from now I’ll think a whole different path I’ve never discovered is the right one to be on.
For someone who has reached the level of popularity you have, you’ve been able to keep your personal life pretty private over the years. You’ve never been the type of person to make headlines. How do you think you’ve been able to do that? If you were starting out now, with social media and the way the media landscape in general is, would that be harder to do than it was 15, 20 years ago?
It probably would be harder to become successful now. Well, let me put it this way. It’s certainly easier to become successful now using all the tools that are at hand to make yourself popular for things that have less to do with music.
I’ve always felt like the stuff in my life or about my life that has less to do with music or nothing to do with music isn’t all that. I don’t know if it’s the northeastern Puritan upbringing or the blue-collar work ethic that was hammered in my head by my grandparents. It’s funny because it’s interesting often when I see other people do it, but when I myself do it, it feels like grandstanding or bragging. That’s always been an odd thing that I’ve preferred to steer clear of.
“There was no hard definition of the kinds of bands within the scene. It was just about community. It wasn’t until we got to other cities that we realized pop-punk bands didn’t play with hardcore bands and singer-songwriters weren’t allowed on anybody’s shows.”
So I was talking with Chad from New Found Glory a couple months ago for their new record and I realized I’ve never asked or heard much about their early days growing up in Florida. That was such a fertile music scene and so many of my favorite bands came from that time period. You grew up in Connecticut and then moved to South Florida at 16. What was the scene like when you first arrived?
It was incredible. The community was close knit. The lineups of the bands were so incestuous. I played in New Found Glory when Chad was on a Shai Hulud tour once, if you’re speaking about them specifically. I did a tour, or maybe it was just a couple shows. But anyway, we were geographically isolated being that far south. You’d basically have to go to the Keys to be further south in America than where we were.
It was prohibitively expensive for bands to get down there in their tour van or bus or whatever it is. They’ve got fuel costs. They can get to Atlanta and turn right and still be making money four hours later, or they can drive 12 to 16 hours and come down to us with nothing in between. At the time, I don’t think Orlando had too may shows. It’s really become a great music scene now. Gainesville would later become a great music scene, but at the time it wasn’t.
When we got national acts, usually indie national acts but national acts, it was a huge, huge deal. When we didn’t get those acts, though, we endeavored to make our own music scene. The kinds of bands we liked, we started them. The kids that liked hardcore bands, they started hardcore bands. And low and behold, they’d blow up. The kids that liked pop-punk bands would become New Found Glory and Yellowcard. The bands that liked math rock stuff would become Further Seems Forever, and the singer-songwriter thing I was attracted to would become Dashboard. But we would all play the same shows.
There was no hard definition of the kinds of bands within the scene. It was just about community. Chad and I have talked about this, but we didn’t know, any of us, that that was strange. It wasn’t until we got to other cities that we realized pop-punk bands didn’t play with hardcore bands and singer-songwriters weren’t allowed on anybody’s shows.
If you were experimental or out there, like maybe Marilyn Manson & the Spooky Kids, as it was called at the time, you were going to have to find someone just like you. And guess what? There’s no one else just like you. So you’re kind of on your own. But in Florida, where we all happened to come from, we could all play together and people were happy to see each band. There was this sense of appreciation. The fans were in bands and the bands were fans.
This is such a good question because I really enjoyed that community of us all and personally it defined me in a way that continues to define me. As a matter of fact, some of us live there still, but many of us don’t. However, strangely many of us live within blocks from each other still, even though we left that area.
You started out as a special education teacher after graduating college.
Actually, before graduating college. I was still in college. I was a teacher’s assistant, essentially. I was a preschool teacher. But I started working at the elementary schools when I was a junior in high school and realized real quickly this is the best-case scenario. You get to be in a band because you get summer vacation, but you also get insurance. You get a paycheck somehow? This is it! This is what I’m going to do. I respected teaching. I loved teaching. I loved the idea of that as a career in and of itself.
Any job I was going to have I was going to go home and play guitar and sing after. But this was the only one I thought of where it didn’t prohibit me from touring, which I started doing the minute I moved to Florida. I think my first tour was at 16, and I was just about 16 when I moved to Florida. Yeah, I must have been 16 on my first tour because I kind of remember driving the Ryder truck that we rented. You got me going down memory lane there.
You were in the Vacant Andys and the Agency before you joined Further. What do you remember about that period and writing songs in the downtime from teaching and going to school?
I am lucky to have a high level of energy. I don’t get sapped super easily. So for me to have more than one job, and be in school full time and be in more than one band at one time, that juggling routine was more exciting than it was taxing, especially the bands part. Almost the entirety of the time, not including when I started Dashboard, I was in no less than four bands at a time.
I loved it. I loved every second of it. I loved driving an hour to practice with the Agency, and then doubling back the same day and practicing with the Vacant Andys, and then rushing off to play a show with this other band I was in called Red Letter Day, which would become As Friends Rust in another lineup. Waking up early the next morning and cramming for a test and all that stuff. It felt like this thing that chose me, you know? I felt honored. If I was lucky enough to be asked to be in a band, I wanted to be the hardest working guy in the band.
“The magic happens in the in-between moments. On the cusp of popularity, going either direction, is when the most inventive stuff happens.”
With being so far south, was it hard getting your music heard outside of Florida? The two big early ‘90s bands that came out of there were Less than Jake and Hot Water Music. Did they help pave the way for you guys?
They did, and they literally helped us. They literally asked us to go on tour. But they were North Florida. To us, that was the goal. Maybe we can move to Gainesville, because once you’re in Gainesville it’s only a couple hours before you can play in Georgia, and once you’re there it’s another state and you’re on tour. Gainesville started to be the place, instead of Atlanta, where national acts started to come down to and then veer back west.
So we kept hoping by virtue of Less Than Jake and Hot Water Music becoming successful that people would be like, “Maybe it’s worth going down to Orlando.” And if they got to Orlando, maybe they’d think it was worth going down to Miami. I don’t know. We hoped that and it never quite worked out that way.
It’s funny, I recently was talking to Stephen from All and the Descendents. I worked this show, meaning I moved the tables and set up the barricades. I wasn’t security or anything like that. I was just a runner or whatever. But I worked this show and it was All, Less Than Jake and Hot Water Music. What a terrific show. I can’t believe I saw that show, let alone got to stand around while they soundchecked and all this stuff.
I already knew Chuck [Ragan, Hot Water Music], and Chuck’s the guy for me. Early on with Further, he made sure we opened for them. He liked it well enough that he was like, “Yeah, let’s get these guys to open.” Then when I started Dashboard, he was like, “I believe in what you’re doing. I’m going to put you on a couple shows here and there.” That was huge. He made himself available to me as like an older cat that was willing to say, “That sounds like bullshit. Don’t do that. That sounds legit. Go do that.”
But I was talking to Stephen. We’ve become friends since, because of playing lots of other different shows together. Once I talked to him about it, he remembered me from those days. He said of that whole South Florida thing that he could sense the spirit of community. We’re talking about a guy who was in the first great American wave of punk rock. I don’t think there’s a Blink-182 without the Descendents. We always compared ourselves, we being the bands down there in South Florida, to the California bands. Not in quality, because we were never going to be as cool as them, but he said he could sense that community. And that’s what they had.
That’s universal. There’s probably pockets of small towns like that everywhere. Maybe that’s who listened to our music in the beginning. That’s certainly where I played in the beginning. I wasn’t going off and getting shows in New York City. I was getting shows in Hicksville, a literal place in Long Island. We weren’t getting shows in L.A., but we certainly were getting shows at the Chain Reaction in Anaheim.
New Found Glory had a record deal pretty early, but the rest of us got real lucky that Napster came around. That’s probably not a real popular thing to say if you make your living putting out music, but that did change things for us. For every dollar I’d lose to somebody who doesn’t pay for a download, there’s also the fact that I wouldn’t be here without that. We wouldn’t be talking without that. I would be very happily playing guitar after work.
The most fascinating thing for me about the Florida scene is if you look at it from a macro angle, there were really three different things going on during that time. You had the punk-hardcore thing you were in, but at the same time you had all the boy band stuff, which was centered in Orlando. That was where Lou Pearlman was, so that’s where Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC and 98 Degrees started.
A couple years earlier was the Mickey Mouse Club, which is where Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake and Ryan Gosling got their starts. Then in Jacksonville was Limp Bizkit, who for better or for worse were ushering in the nu metal phase that exploded everywhere. Florida really shaped music for a whole generation there.
Yeah. It’s weird, but in succession.
It was one right after the other.
It seemed like the boy band thing, they are truly talented people, especially if you talk about the ones you mentioned. Of course there are the fifth and sixth tier ones that I can’t remember. They probably were as comprised of just as talented people, but something about *NSYNC and all that, they really were just so skilled. Among them were Ryan Gosling, who you mentioned, and Justin Timberlake. These are talented, talented people.
Then just above them you had, I guess what I would regard as working class…
Blue-collar mainstream rock. Matchbox Twenty and Creed came from there around that same time, too.
Right. For lack of a better word, it was this meat and potatoes reactionary thing to that boy band thing. This is the first time I’ve tried to articulate this or really thought about it, but it’s interesting. Then I guess you had the lost boys down where we were. We didn’t really think about any of those bands or think anybody would ever think about us. We were like pirates or something. There was an organized feeling about both of those scenes. There was glorious disorganization going on with ours.
Even when you look at it now, both of those two scenes have all but disappeared, but that punk-hardcore scene, while not on the widespread level it was in the ‘90s and early 2000s, is still around and has a passionate following.
But as I’ve seen before us and after us, not us being the bands but my peers as bands, if you grew up listening to punk and hardcore, or any derivation of that, there’s been this boom or bust. It’s like the skateboard scene. It gets real popular and then the bottom falls out. Then it gets real popular and the bottom falls out.
The magic happens in the in-between moments—the most magical things, I think, in both skateboarding and punk rock. On the cusp of popularity, going either direction, is when the most inventive stuff happens.
So you think it will come back around again?
Yeah, I do think so.
Originally appeared on Behind the Setlist