Hands Down This is the Best First Date with Chris Carrabba
I took the Dashboard Confessional frontman for coffee and shit got real deep real fast.
It’s not often you come across a kindred spirit – in daily life, let alone a professional context. Usually, Noisey’s First Dates series goes like this: you sit opposite a celeb who is due to soundcheck in 2–5 hours time and ask them a series of invasive questions about their childhood while trying to elegantly eat a pastry. The most you can hope for is that they don’t come away from the experience thinking you’re even weirder than you actually are. This time, however, was a bit different. Because this time we got to spend the afternoon with primary Further Seems Forever vocalist, founding member of Dashboard Confessional and Twin Forks, and all around gentle soul: Chris Carrabba.
Dashboard Confessional released Crooked Shadows – their first album in nine years – back in February. It became their highest charting album since 2006’s seminal Dusk and Summer (which features Spider-Man 2 banger “Vindicated”, for the uninitiated), and sees the band leaning into more lighters-up rock territory and piano balladry than before. This is what brings them back to London for the first time in over a decade, where they later played a set at Koko that was, much to the delight of me and every other starry-eyed emo, basically MTV Unplugged + new stuff.
Unfortunately this also brings our date to Camden, where rock continues to live and my nervous system goes to die. I was, I won’t lie, already stressed. Putting aside the fact that I spent ages 12 through 16 face down on my bed listening to “Screaming Infidelities” and feeling sad about experiences I hadn’t even had yet, Chris Carrabba is basically the poster-boy for ‘dinner and a movie’ romance. How would you like to go out with the person responsible for writing the world’s most famous song about “the best date” ever?
It all worked out in the end though because, as you will see from our conversation below, Chris is just as nervous and confused as the rest of us. He just articulates it much, much better.
Noisey: Hey Chris, welcome to our fake date!
Chris Carrabba: Thanks, I haven’t been on a fake date in days!
When was the last real date you went on?
Probably right before I left [for tour]. It was lovely, actually. We skirted off to Napa.
Well, my idea of drinking coffee outdoors in wintertime Camden is feeling a lot less impressive now...
This is probably more my speed. Napa was not my element… and it led me to stop drinking [laughs]. It was time, anyway. That was my last hurrah.
Too much wine, huh? So what do you like to do to break the ice with someone?
This isn’t that far off what I’d like to do on a first date. Go someplace I’ve never been before with somebody I don’t know – who’s happy to be outside of their office, so they’re already in a good mood – get to sight see a little bit. I might have been nervous about how things were going to go between us, but then I ran into a friend earlier and he made me look cool in front of you. In other words, I usually have a plant. Coffee and dessert is a good choice, too. Takes a lot of the pressure off more than a whole meal.
Yeah, I really don’t like eating in front of anyone I’m meeting for the first time.
No one does! That’s has to be the worst idea for a first date.
I don’t know about you, but I’m an incredibly graceless eater.
The other day I posted a picture of myself in a white t-shirt and said “the countdown is on until this is completely stained from Wagamama” and within two minutes it was like a Jackson Pollock experiment.
Do you remember the first date you ever went on?
Yes! So, I guess I lived in.... the bad neighbourhood? And I rode my bike to the cinema in the good area of town, where there was a second run movie theatre that showed movies for a dollar. I remember paying for my date’s ticket and feeling like a real grown up. Big spender, there – two bucks for a date. And we shared a popcorn. Her parents picked her up and I rode home in the dark and tried not to die. I didn’t have any lights [on my bike] or anything, but she kissed me on the cheek before I left and I think I rode a wheelie all the way home.
Do you consider yourself to be a romantic?
I’d say so, yes. I like small romantic gestures better than large romantic gestures, but I think I look at the world through a romantic lens, which can cause suffering if you happen to be an artist. And also if you’re often rebuked in your grand affections [laughs], but I found out there’s some songs in that.
What do you mean by suffering in that sense?
The suffering of love? That’s such a good name for a band. Emma, I think we just started a side-project! Or at least that’s the name of the record. Does it sum it up enough to say The Cure is my favourite band?
Kind of, yes.
I think I have a propensity to yearn – for people I miss, for people I love, for people I lost or have left me. There’s the obviously fulfilling portion of love, the active part of love, and then – even in relationships that are working – there are periods where things are dormant in that regard. I don’t think yearning has to be the worst thing. That can feel good too. It can remind you that you've chosen the right person. But I guess we’re programmed to find a way to fit in, in the world. I’m someone that feels like I don’t fit in well in most scenarios, and I’ve often found that it’s through my connections with other people that I find out who I am, and that make me more comfortable with myself.
I relate to that very strongly. How or when do you know that you’re in love?
In my experience? I think you know pretty quickly. The tricky thing is that doesn’t necessarily mean you've found the right love, or that you’re compatible, or how that love is supposed to work together. But it’s not something I’ve found to show up later. It’s usually doubtless certainty right up front – that rattles you almost, you know?
It's a flood.
What’s the nicest things anyone has done for you?
I traded away my first guitar and regretted it almost instantly. The person I traded it to moved several states away, I lost touch with him, and then years later became a professional musician. I think the nicest romantic gesture anyone has done for me is tracking down that person, buying that guitar back and giving it to me again. I’m still a little mystified by that whole moment. I saw the case come out of the room and thought “I thought I traded that case with that guitar? She must have gotten me the same kind of guitar and put it in that case”. Then I opened it up and there was the very telling, giant dent in the guitar that had been there – it could only be mine! I still have it and I’ll never get rid of it now.
How did it get dented?
One of my younger brother’s friends was trying to sleep over and he was on the phone with his mom, and she said no so he threw the phone and it hit my guitar and cracked it. I don’t remember jumping at his throat, but I remember my older brother – who’s quite a big guy, he’s about 6”3 – catching me in mid-air and bear hugging me, and then throwing me in the bedroom we all shared and holding the door shut for what must have been an hour before I calmed down. I was livid. It was the only thing I had, and it was really precious to me. It’s funny that crack made it better, because that was the thing that assured me it was mine all those years later. But I could’ve killed that son of a bitch!
So what does a day in the life of Chris look like?
Well, I write a lot…
Do you always write with the intent to turn it into a song?
No, I write in longform quite a lot. It wouldn’t be far fetched to say I probably have at least three terrible novels nearly completed that I’ll never use for anything other than that they’re an invitation to songwriting for me somehow. I skateboard a lot. I like to work on mechanical things, like cars. So I spend a lot of time doing that in the warmer months.
Do you find that gives you a nice balance between the creative and the practical?
Yeah, because you have to really remain focussed when you’re working on an engine – I need my fingers to play guitar, and I’d like to keep them anyway, probably. I was recently putting a new fan in and you wouldn’t believe how sharp a fan for an old car is. Of course the whole endeavour ended with many bloody towels, but the fan works – and the hand works. So it was a success!
Speaking of many bloody towels, could you tell me about your first tattoo?
Sure! I think this story is a pretty good expression of how, at points in my life, I’ve been rather reckless. I was in one of these periods of recklessness when one of my friend’s got a tattoo gun, as he called it. They call them machines now, but when you’ve just learned how to do it in jail you call it a gun. That’s where he learned, I think. He asked me if I wanted one, which I didn’t, but said “yep!” I gave it that much thought. I don’t know if you have any tattoos, but I’ll describe how it feels: it’s just a little bit of blood that they wipe away, and it hurts, but when people ask me if it hurts my answer is kind of like: well, if it really hurt that badly you wouldn’t see so many people with them. It hurts, but it’s not that bad. This, however, hurt like a motherfucker. They had to put a bucket under my arm.
He went that deep huh?
Yes. It’s since been covered up… several times. I let him do many, by the way, and they’re all blacked out now. You’ll see later how far I let myself go down this road of being tortured until I found out that it wasn’t supposed to be that bad. I don’t recall any forethought, and I also don’t recall feeling like it defined me or set me apart or any of those things that people often get tattoos for. I still don’t, thinking about it. People often ask questions like “what do they mean to you?” or “what do they represent?” – and I don’t know that I think of them that way. They do have representation traditionally, and they have representation to me sometimes, but as for the other question I often get asked goes – “is it to show the world who you are?” – I think the answer to that, if anything, is it’s to show the world who I’m not.
Could you tell me a bit more about where you grew up?
I grew up in Hartford, Connecticut, and it gets very cold there. It’s not unusual to get two or three feet of snow. My friends and I were skateboarders, but you obviously can’t skateboard in that. You’ve gotta do something when you’re inside, so I’d inaccurately play along with these records that I love, but Connecticut had no music scene whatsoever. It was very strange. Everybody I knew there listened to their parents’ music. Everybody listened to Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix and that seemed to be about it, and I found that I didn’t want to share that with my parents – or with my mother, which is what I had. Although, my taste would grow to match hers in time, and hers mine I guess. Who wants to listen to the music their mom listens to? I didn’t get it! Then my mom moved us to Florida, which was miraculous, because you can skateboard all year around, and there were all these punks and skaters.
Did you spend most of your teens in Florida?
Yeah. I moved around a lot, though, and I think that’s part of my comeuppance as a musician. Between kindergarten and senior year, which is 13 years, I went to 16 different schools. So I was always new someplace and someplace was always new to me, and I had very little constants except for my skateboard and my guitar and that rag-tag network of friends that had bonded so fiercely over making music together.
What were your first experiences like with the punk scene there like?
In the summer in Florida, there’s a torrential downpour at 2pm everyday. We were sponsored by this skateboard shop called Bo’s Surf N’ Sport, and Bo had a little room in the back and when it was raining he would let us play in it. So we would drive away business from the shops with our terrible music but all that discovery was happening simultaneously – how to play, how to play with other people, what music we loved, what music we weren’t allowed to love as we were told by kids three months older than us who seemed like adults. And the DIY scene was radically involved at the time – teenagers were putting shows on, promoting the shows. I met my best friend to this day, Amy Fleisher Madden, when she was… what, 15-years-old? And she was putting out records and promoting shows for bands on a national scale. Her whole attitude was like “we’re not going to get any shows if we don’t do it”, so she created this enterprise somehow. It was just a bunch of us dopes, not even considering the fact that maybe adults should be guiding us.
Has your approach to songwriting changed much since those early days? Are you still motivated by the same compulsions?
It’s so funny you should ask me that question today. Inspiration is circuitous. You’re so inspired and then you feel you must move on from that method of inspiration, then you're inspired again and you feel you must move on from that one too. I have this great fear of mining the same territory over and over again, even though I don’t mind expressing it in a way that maybe fees like a thread you can follow, but I think I’ve kind of come back around. The other day I wrote a song and the inspiration came from that exact same place [as the early days], or feeling of that place. This is really hard to verbalise, forgive me. But I wrote it at like 7pm in Newcastle and played it on stage that night. I couldn’t help it. The songs I remember most from those days of inspiration, when I first discovered how powerful inspiration could be, it had that same fire.
So what’s inspiring you right now, like when you were writing that song a few days ago for instance?
You don’t stop trying to figure out who you are, it turns out, and I have a lot of trouble with that. I never feel like I quite have sure footing. So I don’t know what has inspired me – I mean I probably do, I just don't want to say – but I find that the way it turns into a song is me trying to figure out where I fit in. Where these feelings have pushed me, and now where do I fit in. I’m never very good at expressing myself unless I have a song to do it with, then it takes me months to understand what the song means… and then it all makes sense!
I was reading an interview with GQ recently where the interviewer was asking you whether it’s harder to write songs now that you have things figured out by virtue of being older, and you say then that you never really stop figuring things out unless you stop growing as a person.
It’s a great idea that you should have shit figured out, but it’s an impossible task and an incredible lie the adults all told us! “Oh you’ll have it figured out one day” – you won’t. You might stop trying as hard to figure it out, but I’m not interested in that. I think that’s the thing: complacency where you stop trying to figuring it out maybe masquerades as maturity.
How do you relate to the songs you wrote early on in your career? Do they evolve and re-contextualise themselves over time or do they feel very time and place to you?
The only answer I have for that, really, is all of the above. The songs themselves are fluid, so it’s more about the context of where I’m singing them and who I’m singing them to. Who’s singing them back to me, and what they seem to be feeling, and what that means. Of course they’re not conveying what they think, but maybe they’re singing much louder on that one line that I’ve never thought was the line to think about, and suddenly I’m thinking about it, and in that moment that’s what that song is about. Other times, it’s like a strange time machine where I close my eyes during the song and I’m right there where I was writing the song. And every once in a while, it just truly brings me back to that place or whatever life experience led to the song. With all that said, I feel pretty lucky that these songs can’t get old to me because they’re so much the audience's as well as mine. If it was just me and my point of view every night singing them for years, I don’t know that I would enjoy them the way that I do. But they get filtered through different lenses so often that they stay exciting.
You can find Emma on Twitter.
All photography by Chris Bethell.