Living in Your Letters: An Interview with Dashboard Confessional
Candidly reflecting on the album that launched his career, Chris Carrabba talks to PopMatters about what The Swiss Army Romance means to him, why he's touring on its 10th anniversary, and why he wouldn't mind getting back to that songwriting realm once more ...
Some may call Chris Carrabba the godfather of modern emo. To many listeners he is eternally 25 years old, exploring all the depths of heartache and yet optimistically driving into the sunset, promising tomorrows of possibilities.
Carrabba, the frontman of Dashboard Confessional, still owns the guitar with which he wrote his infamous album, The Swiss Army Romance, ten years ago. He is extremely humble and knows that guitar and album changed his life. And although that guitar wouldn't withstand a show now, he says, he's looking forward to replaying the album in its entirety for fans on his current tour, celebrating the 10th anniversary of The Swiss Army Romance.
How have things changed for you personally in the last 10 years?
You grow up a lot from your 20s to your 30s. The very obvious things have changed such as not being completely broke and having a job I can count on. I've learned a lot of life lessons in those 10 years that have shaped me into a much better person. I'm in a much different place than I was when I wrote the album, and that has influenced me. The way I view myself in my relationship to the world has completely changed. That's a common thing for people in that age bracket, and it has a huge effect on the songwriter.
How have you changed musically in the last ten years?
It's a hard question for me to answer. I've gotten better in some regards, and I've maybe lost something ... I realize there is a brashness to the music (on The Swiss Army Romance) that is very powerful. That is one of the tradeoffs of becoming a better musician. If you continue to have that same brashness you sound cocky instead of brash. My voice has also changed a lot. In my 20s I hadn't quite figured out how to sing without screaming from my work in Further Seems Forever. But thankfully I can maintain a bit of that brashness and still use that (scream-singing) when I choose to.
Do you ever think about going back to that simplicity as a musician?
I have gone back to the very obvious similarity of just using the acoustic guitar, which can be heard on The Shade of Poison Trees album, but I haven't revisited that spirit of my earlier records. I've gotten near it, and I'd like to revisit it, but I feel that I need to be invited to that place, I can't get myself there. I was lucky more than once to get myself there on Swiss Army and The Places You Have Come to Fear The Most. But now I am a very different person. If I would be lucky enough to get myself back to that place again as a musician I would embrace it.
Do you believe the topics in those songs on The Swiss Army Romance are still relevant today?
Those topics resonated with others because they were classic themes to begin with. These were universal topics. Not to claim that I wrote classic songs, but I hope that I wrote songs that will stand the test of time for the people that have embraced them. That would be a stroke of luck. The songs are timeless, about love, happiness and hope, and the opposite of that -- loss of hope and a longing for happiness. People will feel that way in good times and bad.
Why do you think this album has meant so much to people for so long?
That has baffled me to the nth degree. I know why the album was important to me -- it was my life. I can only guess that there's just enough color in the songs that there's space for the listener to invest their own life experience into them and have part ownership. I try not to think about this stuff too much; try not to crack the code. I'm just lucky this keeps happening only because I trust that it will, and not because I know how to write meaningful songs.
How did this album influence other musicians at the time?
I was a product of the music scene that came before mine, and I'm glad I did my part to carry the mantel for a minute. I'm proud of the bands that came after us. I never got the emo movement exactly, but I never railed against it or embraced it either. It just seems to describe a music scene that created mine, and describes something even vaguer in that. There is a spirit to the way we operated as bands -- very rootsy and blue-collar with touring and operating, trying our best to buck the system. And other bands have taken that further than mine.
It was dumb luck that we were making this music that was very different from each other -- bands like Alkaline Trio, New Found Glory, Hot Rod Circuit, Piebald -- we admired each other, even though our music didn't fit together exactly. We all had a similar ethos as to how we did shows, and we built something that was communal. I was very lucky to meet all those people when we were young and that we all really became such close friends. Not long ago I was talking to Chris from Saves the Day about things that we may do in the future. All these years later we are still scheming and coming up with ideas, to take what is special to us and show that to each audience we play to.
Do you find this is your most popular album?
I have records that have eclipsed it in record sales, but I don't think that is the fair way to quantify. This album was the springboard of my entire career, without which I would be a roofer or a teacher or something. It took my life on a different course. This record and my peers worked to create a scene -- Saves the Day, The Get Up Kids for example -- we created a sort of touchstone of moments. This album and Places You Have Come to Fear the Most were recorded three months apart, released five months apart, and gave me the devoted part of my fan base.
What is your favorite song on the album?
It changes. Sometimes its "Turpentine Chaser", but as I look at my guitar, and think about what I want to play, it's "A Plain Morning". I don't know how to pick my favorite. I'm excited to play the album in the order here that my fans know it best, and that I do not know it best in. I only played it in that order when I made the demo. And I don't listen to the songs in order because of my impatience. I always skip to the next song. I'm happy to sit and play the songs, but listening is a frightful experience!
How are you celebrating the anniversary?
We are touring and playing the album in its running order and entirety. There's also a special version of the record that I've released on vinyl. It's a box set with hand- written lyrics and pieces that true die-hard fans will enjoy, and we pressed 1000 of these.
What would you tell yourself ten years ago, if you had the chance?
I would tell myself to pay attention and learn your lessons faster this time.
Carrabba is currently listening to bands he discovered while writing The Swiss Army Romance to remember memories that haven't been woken up in a while. His fans will certainly appreciate his commitment to recreating that simple, yet effective spirit.